There's nothing easy about Howard Barker's work. If you're not ready to be confronted and alert, his amalgam of hypertheatricalized contradictions, aggressive anachronism, and crackling, careening language might simply confound you, washing out to a blur of deliberately constructed noise.
But then again, maybe it's exactly this blurring potential that makes the work so powerful and unique. In yet another marvelous production of Barker's work (I saw and loved 2011's Victory: Choices in Reaction), Potomac Theatre Project has provided New Yorkers the chance to immerse themselves in this cult British playwright's unmistakable world. The careening plot is matched in mutability only by the litany of long, intense speeches that veer between juvenile smut and ideas too big for their britches, with hardly a transition to keep us settled.
What makes the company's work so impressive, though, is that you don't have to keep up. The story's not that complicated: several knights return to England from the Crusades to find that their wives remade their world into a pastoral, feminine paradise free from the constraints of government, sexual mores, or Church. As he attempts to reorder society, head knight Stucley (David Barlow) commissions the construction of a gargantuan castle, realigns Christianity along phallic lines, and holds (some) women horribly accountable for their desertion of tradition. And yet Barker's play hardly conforms to any simplistic order. Instead, the freewheeling structure explores questions of arms proliferation, gender roles, religion, cultural diffusion, and of course, rebellion. It could make for an interminably didactic experience, but director Richard Romagnoli (who has been focusing on Barker for decades, and has directed The Castle before) speaks through Barker's theatricality, meaning the rollercoaster wows even if its riders don't stop to wonder how it works.
Without a doubt, the fierce commitment of the cast is a crucial element in such an experience. Romagnoli's frequent collaborator Jan Maxwell plays Skinner, the witch who led the abandoned women, and brings the play its essential emotional core, which Barker only haphazardly bothers to construct on the page. Other standouts include Barlow and Brent Langdon, but the entire 16-person cast embraces the profuse contradictions of the language and the ramshackle pace to make certain the audience is never still enough for either comfort or the pretense of understanding.
PTP is producing The Castle alongside Caryl Churchill's Serious Money. If the latter show reveals any part of the sophistication, profundity and fun that The Castle employs for such difficult work, then you've got a nice weekend of theatre ahead of you.