nytheatre.com review by David Fuller
December 2, 2008
The story of Judith is literally one of biblical proportions. Her tale comprises the Book of Judith, part of the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books of the Old Testament, though it was excluded from both the Jewish and Protestant canon. It has been argued that her exclusion is because she was such a strong dominant female character—an example of female leadership that stands contrary to the masculine oligarchy. As the legend goes, Judith was a widow who single-handedly saved ancient Israel by pretending to seduce the general of the opposing army the night before the big battle. When his guard was down, she killed him, cut off his head, and displayed the trophy before her army, giving them courage and inspiration to win.
Playwright Howard Barker's one-hour take on these events centers on the time just before and after the murder, and is cast sparingly with just the victim General Holofernes, the title character Judith, and Judith's servant. It is presented in a forthright production by The Centrifuge, featuring Joanie Mackenzie as the Servant, David Rispoli as Holofernes and Sara Todes as Judith, under the direction of Jonathan Solari. The acting is uniformly good and the direction clear and well-motivated, using Sarah Hoit's set to best advantage.
The set in fact is very effective, utilizing swags of muslin or sheets to create Holofernes's private tent, with just the right pillows and other set dressing to give it a sub-Sahara feel. Andrew Neiser's lights beautifully add to the mood and artfully set the time as night moves towards dawn and firelight gives way to sunlight. The sound design, too, is very well done. Andrew Scoville renders an aural palette that melds the desert sounds of arid wind with more elemental and unworldly effects that underscore moods and moments.
All these artists have created a beautiful piece that in many ways outshines the written material. As a play about such an important and underserved biblical force, Howard Barker really falls short of the mark. His writing is so maddeningly enigmatic and obtuse that I found I really had to struggle to follow the characters' thoughts. If it is supposed to be subtext-driven theater, then there at least must be some clues to help us follow a train of thought! I don't pretend to have an answer, but I do know that writing oblique dialogue is not the best way to engage an audience.
For me, the result was that I cared nothing for the character of Holofernes, so I didn't invest anything in his ultimate demise. Similarly, I found nothing redeeming in the Judith character and so was not moved enough to care about her and her motivations. Ironically, the most fully realized character to me is the Servant, who has a vested interest in the success of Judith's plan, plays a significant part in the murder itself, and conveys a dark comedic sensibility.
Some audience members were rapt by the performance, so it is certainly possible it just wasn't my cup of tea. There is some good emotional work being done by Mackenzie, Rispoli, and Todes. However, the writing let my attention shift. Too often I was focusing on the fine production values and glancing at my watch.