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A Frighteningly Familiar Fairy Tale

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Nothing says, "I told you so" like writing a political parable a decade before it comes true. But the beauty of a good parable is that it has the feel of having already come true a hundred times before, and of being prophetic of a hundred dark hours to come.

This is what English playwright Howard Barker has achieved with "A Hard Heart," originally a radio play performed in 1991 and now brought to the New York stage by Epic Theater Ensemble.

The play's protagonist, played flawlessly by Kathleen Chalfant, is the architect of an unspecified country's failing war. Following her delusional obsession with prestige, Chalfant's architect smirks and saunters even as she orders the destruction of her own civilization, blindly confident of her own misguided decisions.

Going on this journey provides the audience with a rare and harrowing glimpse into the worst-case scenario of an unsound mind given unchallenged power, and the story's fairytale trappings do nothing to soften its plausibility.

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The characters here are all stock - the pampered draft dodging son, the stoic general, the good-intentioned leader stooping to torture - but come alive in the hands of Epic Theater Ensemble's thoroughly veteran cast. Nearly every player is vague enough to remind us of a dozen flesh and blood power brokers, while remaining unique, nuanced, and complicated characters worthy of caring for.

As for the architect, named by the playwright only as "Riddler," she could as easily be attributed to the living legacy of Bush or Rove as Hermann Göring or Nero. Because of this, in an odd and backhanded way, "A Hard Heart" is a comforting tale. It reminds us that the dark times we find ourselves in are not unique to history. It does not, however, reassure us that everything will be okay.

"A Hard Heart" plays at the Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row (410 West 42nd Street, NY, NY) through December 2, 2007.

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Photo credits: Carol Rosegg

For show and ticket info, visit Epic Theater's website.