BY JOHN DeMERS
Plays by John Harvey are never pretty, sweet or uplifting. Drawing on many theatrical forces of the late 20th century, the playwright based at the University of Houston seems to major in cruelty with unrelenting sexual tendencies, degradation and dark observations about the human animal. In general, you’d do well at a Harvey play to focus on the word “animal,” letting the word “human” fend for itself.
The man’s latest play, produced by the local company called Mildred’s Umbrella and directed by MU’s own Jennifer Decker, is titled Rome. Yet it seems it’s not actually set in Rome, since there’s much talk of going there – just as it seems that several of the characters, onstage and at least one offstage, are actually brother and sister. This fact has not prevented several of them from having sex, apparently, never in the sense of falling in love or even making love, always in the sense of dominating, conquering, punishing and destroying. The lead female character even wears a floor-length, slinky black dress, bringing one pop-culture reference unavoidably to mind. It’s as though The Addams Family had been rewritten, sexually abused Morticia and all, by Sigmund Freud.
You can’t demand a lot of clarity or certainty, or indeed a lot of plot resolution, if you’re going to enjoy watching Rome. I must not demand such things, since I did enjoy its 90 minutes served up at Studio 101 without an intermission. There is much to admire in Harvey’s dark poetry: his creation of a world in which all reassurances and protections have broken down. Image after image floats through the air of nocturnal spaces outside this single drawing room, of creatures slinking carrying weapons (or body parts?), of riots over food, of the entire machinery known as civilization creaking and clanking to an exhausted halt. It’s hard to tell if Harvey’s vision is real and physical in time, or whether it’s metaphorical – exploring the darkest places that have always lurked within us. In Rome, he seems to be picking with gruesome curiosity at both.
Decker fields an ensemble of actors willing to be as fierce as Harvey’s language. All are excellent. Since every second of the play takes place in a single drawing room, we are continually reminded of all those English dramas in which keeping a stiff upper lip seems to be the main action – unless of course, it’s an Agatha Christie mystery, in which this propriety is shattered by some terrible murder. Some stretches of dialogue seem to be philosophical just to be philosophical, yet others hint at mean-spirited and hurtful doings buried deep in the past, as when Georgina remembers for her sister Fanny the night their father showed up to molest one of them, and then chose Fanny. Sympathy mixes disturbingly with jealousy in the telling.
Bobby Haworth and Patricia Duran are first among equals in the cast, their characters (and her sheer Morticia beauty) marking them as central to whatever passes for a traditional plot. The two are apparently married, though none too happily. Each is suspicious of the other’s every move, every motivation, past, present and future. Haworth and Duran are masterful at this sniping and suffering, yet they are almost equaled by H.R. Bradford and Christie Stark-Guidry as sexually charged brother and sister George and Georgina, their very names evoking some kind of matched pair. Jon Harvey and Amy Warren portray friends caught somehow in this same drawing room, each with sexual fireworks both together and separately.
Just as the play’s setting is ambiguous, just as the characters relationships are ambiguous, so is what we’re supposed to make of or take away from the denouement, involving the arrival of soldiers directed by an S&M “Captain” played with ice-in-veins by Courtney Lomelo. Unlike at the close of Hamlet, it’s hard to picture the arrival of these particular soldiers bringing anything resembling order to John Harvey’s chaos.
Photo by VJ Arizpe.