The Potomac Theatre Project has been staging Howard Barker and Caryl Churchill for decades, and this can mean one of two things: mastery or stagnation. Unfortunately, it’s a little of both this season, with the company pairing two short works, Mr. Barker’s The Possibilities, a series of vignettes linking the mundane and the momentous, and Ms. Churchill’s The After-Dinner Joke, a skewering of the charity industry.
The Possibilities is often concerned with great people in their down time. In one scene, the Biblical Judith (Kathleen Wise) describes both her desire for and her murder of Holofernes. In another, Alexander of Russia (Jonathan Tindle) shares a private moment with a peasant, who reassures this emperor tortured by the sound of his soldiers being slaughtered on the battlefield. There is a lovely moment where Alexander asks to be undressed: his face frozen, his body shaking, he looks like a newborn too petrified to cry. But soon the man-as-god returns. Frightened by the exposure, he orders the peasant to be flogged—for “no reason.”
The After-Dinner Joke is an early work but still demonstrates Ms. Churchill’s indefatigable fascination with form. Comprised of sixty-five scenes and featuring over two dozen characters, the play follows Selby (Tara Giordano), a corporate secretary who wants “to do good” but soon finds that charity is simply another business, one more arm of the capitalist monster that created the very conditions it appears to be fighting. The script is hysterical and merciless, but the production is marred by cheap-looking effects. For example, the play calls for pie-throwing, but instead of actually throwing pies, there is a brief, animated scene projected onto a screen that indicates pie-throwing. Later, a sales clerk is meant to drag a boat onstage; again, this is just simulated onscreen in a bit of animation that recalls both Terry Gilliam and Windows 95 screensavers. Without the physical presence of the pies and their mess, or the boat and its size, it all feels shockingly amateurish, rather a disappointment from a company with over thirty years under its belt.
Still, PTP is a consistent source of these two vital playwrights, playwrights who are often neglected this side of the Atlantic. They may have faltered this time around, but there’s always next season.