Howard Barker’s “Judith: A Parting from the Body” is a midrash on the story of Judith and Holofernes.
Of course, all artistic interpretations of biblical and religious stories are midrashic as they attempt to reveal the unseen in sacred text. The British playwright and poet Barker has described his work as a “theater of catastrophe,” and an acting group dedicated to his writing is called the Wrestling School. It encourages wrestling with the complex ideas in his plays.
Interesting, isn’t it, that “wrestling” is a popular concept in the Jewish world these days in relation to both Israel and tradition?
Now at the Atlantic Stage 2 on West 16th Street, the Potomac Theater Project’s scintillating production of “Judith” keeps the outline of the story found in the Book of Judith in the Catholic version of the Old Testament, but veers far from the traditional characterizations of the people involved. (References to Judith began to reappear in Jewish sources during the Middle Ages in France and Spain.) Holofernes is not the drunken lout familiar from the tale told at Chanukah, but a philosophizing strategist who worries that he cannot be loved. Judith is the beautiful widow we know, but she seems as intent on deconstructing the nature of desire as she is to cut off Holofernes’ head to save Israel. Her maidservant plays a much larger role than in the religious story, representing the real suffering that results from the abstract theories of death, sex, and violence that consume both Judith and Holofernes.
PTP has made a custom of producing Barker’s work, and the actors on stage are comfortable with his dense, challenging dialogue, which is the opposite of naturalistic. As directed by Richard Romagnoli, Pamela J. Gray as Judith, Alex Draper as Holofernes, and Patricia Buckley as the servant give excellent performances, imbuing their characters with intelligence and energy. Barker’s language is not easy to absorb, so good acting is important.
“While victory is the object of battle, death is its subject,” Holofernes opines, and death is his great passion. As the play goes on to suggest, death is orgasmic, and it may be the only true thing. Words are lies, and the words between men and women are the greatest falsehoods. As they circle one another, Judith and Holofernes practice the most seductive form of foreplay, which is conversation.
Like the stories of Esther and Ruth, Judith’s tale has all the elements of popular fiction: a beautiful woman, a powerful man, danger and disguise, and lots of sexuality. It is a great emotional spectacle; no wonder it has been the subject of so much art and literature. Barker finds within the story deep questions of mortality and the human penchant for violence.
At one hour long, “Judith” is mysterious, gripping, and intellectually exciting. It is not an easy play, but it is never boring or condescending. I can’t say the same for its partner on the bill, “Vinegar Tom” by Caryl Churchill. Set in the 17th century, the play is a relatively straightforward history lesson on women and witchcraft — how innocent women were accused of being witches, how superstition ruled their communities, and how men maintained power and control. This all seems historically accurate and must have been filled with feminist fervor and outrage in the late 1970s, when it was written. Unfortunately, it feels much less contemporary today. That’s not to say that women in the West are accorded full respect, but the brutal persecution of women depicted in the play takes place primarily in other parts of the world these days. The barriers Western women face are more subtle and perhaps trickier to overcome. The large, talented cast gives it the best they have, but the challenge seems too great.
The plays run through August 8.