by Matthew T. Messina
Seventy-five minutes in the theatre without an emotional response is very close to death. Even a seventy-five minute nap can elicit more feeling. During Trapdoor Theatre’s production of Howard Barker’s play Judith: A Parting From The Body, directed by Zeljko Djukic, I psychologically and spiritually flat-lined.
Barker’s play is an exploration of the biblical story of Judith and a foray into the psychological motivation of the eponymous heroine. Judith (Nicole Wiesner), a widowed Israelite enters the tent of Holofernes (Kevin Cox), the general of the invading Assyrian army, accompanied by her servant (Stacie Beth Green). Judith gains access to Holofernes’ tent with the offer of her body. Ultimately, she beheads Holofernes, saving Israel from its oppressors.
To kill or fuck is Judith’s major dilemma as she wrestles with the question of whether or not to use her body as a bargaining chip. She falls victim to a case of Stockholm Syndrome, as she begins to fall in love with not only the leader of Israel’s captor, but her prey. The play meditates on the juxtaposition of such topics as murder and sex, love and war, death and life as a means to continue on with life. The play’s opposition of these themes elucidates the eerie similarities; namely the violent nature of sex and love and how they are not so different from acts of war. Topics such as violence and sexuality are indicative of Barker’s work, which he has coined as the Theatre of Catastrophe. Barker aims to force each audience member into the role of interpreter, leaving them either disturbed or amazed.
Djukic’s production began with Holofernes onstage during preshow. The stage was covered with sand, which Holofernes meticulously raked, conjuring up the image of a Japanese Zen garden. Traditionally, Zen gardens are a place for meditation on the meaning of life. That image, combined with the gently swaying platform suspended from the ceiling, made for a serene setting.
Even if Barker’s text is dense and complicated, it is the director and actor’s job to electrify the text, which neither party achieved. The play is in conversation with visceral, and grotesque themes, and the language certainly matches these themes considering the R-rated lexicon (lots of C’s and F’s folks).
Djukic’s staging did not match the grotesque nature of the text. It is one thing to let the text speak for itself, but it is another to not engage with the text and bring forth newfound life. The climax of the play is when Judith beheads Holofernes. Djukic inserted his own symbolic interpretation. Instead of a bloodbath, Judith and her servant wrapped Holofernes in a black cloth, laid him on the suspended platform, and with one slight thrust of the sword, he was dead. The servant then made a papier-mâché mask of his face. She slowly removed the mask and this served as Holorfernes’ severed head. An effective metaphor has the potential to conjure a response a child has when he/she feels something he/she cannot yet name. That is not what Djukic’s metaphor offered. It certainly left each audience member in a position to grapple, but it lacked any visceral effect.
This past fall there was a special exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago entitled, “Violence and Virtue.” It featured the prodigal Renaissance artist, Artemisia Gentileschi’s iconic panting, “Judith Slaying Holofernes.” The painting depicts the climax of the story, featured in Barker’s play, the beheading of Holofernes. Gentileschi’s sprawling painting, which measures five-feet tall and four feet wide, is arresting, gory, seductively beautiful, and highly theatrical. The horrifying splendor entranced me. Perhaps I was disappointed by Djukic’s production because I know an interpretation of the story that is capable of eliciting an emotional response. This production could have sent me out of my seat and into the cold night with a new perception of the world. But it did not.