Trap Door Theatre. By Howard Barker. Dir. Zjelko Djukic. With Nicole Wiesner, Kevin Cox, Stacie Beth Green. 1hr 15mins; no intermission.
Theater review by Megan Powell
The apocryphal Book of Judith has been a frequent subject of modern art. The most famous interpretation of the tale, in which the alluring Jewish widow enters the camp of the enemy general poised to attack her people and beheads him in order to save the Israelites, is probably Judith Slaying Holofernes by 17th-century Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi. Recently on display at the Art Institute of Chicago, the painting arrestingly, vividly depicts the literal coup de grace as both sumptuous and savage.
Judith’s story as it unfolds on Trap Door’s modestly-sized stage is spare, elusive but just as arresting. The violence and blood in the Renaissance painting are absent in Howard Barker’s brief play; instead, these are imbued in its words, unwound in long poetic volleys and short, fierce bursts. Barker is a British playwright whose career spans four decades and who explores power, sexuality and psychology through a self-described Theatre of Catastrophe, in which theatrical performance doesn’t emit a solitary “message” but rather challenges viewers to find meaning through multiple interpretations.
Given the provenance and purpose of Barker’s 1992 script, then, TUTA’s Zjelko Djukic distills the abstract into the palpable excellently. Judith: A Parting from the Body is not a straightforward retelling of the ancient story, but Djukic and his dexterous cast create a resonant, poetic exploration of the inner psychological undercarriage of the characters. That’s clear from the get-go: One enters the theatre to find Holofernes (meticulously played by Kevin Cox) placidly raking a stage-sized Zen garden. He is a warrior surrounded by peace, a slight man bedeviled by philosophical questions, and one who wants to engage with an equal. That equal arrives in the form of Judith (Nicole Wiesner), with her spirited servant (Stacie Beth Green), ostensibly to ply him with drink and to commit a fatal seduction. But it’s not vengeance, or righteousness, that ends up fueling the night, but the slipperiness and luster of desire, maybe even love.
The cast handles this emotional disorder with precision and grace; Wiesner is riveting as she embodies with voice, body and heart all the little earthquakes of Judith’s intrigue, even as she is goaded and chided by Green’s whip-smart handmaid. Lit from below so that the actors’ faces are often sharply outlined, the production displays the startling chiaroscuro of Gentileschi’s painting—both outwardly and inwardly.