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From left, Benjamin Blais, Michael Spencer-Davis, Mike Dufays and Brenhan McKibben star in The Castle at the Storefront Theatre.

John Gundy

2 out of 4 stars

The Castle
Written by
Howard Barker
Directed by
Dean Gabourie
Benjamin Blais, Claire Burns, Mike Dufays and Linda Prystawska
The Storefront Theatre

Britain's Howard Barker has been a fringe figure in the world of theatre since the 1970s – but the iconoclast has recently started to inch toward the establishment he's long loved to loathe. He had his first production at the Royal National Theatre three years ago, then his 1985 play The Castle had an overdue New York premiere two years ago – lauded by the Times, no less.

The Castle, a battle of the sexes seemingly set in Medieval England, now finds itself at the Storefront in Toronto in a 13-actor production that is one of the biggest staged to date at the upstart indie theatre.

It's a welcome opportunity for reassessment of a cult classic for the city's theatregoers. The Castle was last seen here as part of a well-regarded quartet of Barker productions directed by Richard Rose, now artistic director of the Tarragon Theatre, in the late 1980s.

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After seven years abroad, Stucley (Benjamin Blais) returns from the Crusades, or a crusade in any case, to find the valley that was his home transformed into a feminist/socialist utopia. His wife, Ann (Linda Prystawska), is sleeping with the widow Skinner (Claire Burns); the priests have been kicked out of the church and milk cows moved in; and, in the new religion practised, the word "fence" has become blasphemy.

Faced with this revolution, Stucley is, above all, heartbroken – his yearning for his wife having sustained him throughout the holy war. "I who jumped in every pond of murder kept this one thing pure in my head, pictured you half-naked on an English night," he says – and you feel the ache beneath the bravado in Blais's performance.

The knight's next response, however, is to wage a new crusade on the home front, restoring patriarchy by building the largest phallic symbol possible. He instructs a captive Arab architect named Krak (Mike Dufays) to design and build him a giant castle, and Krak obliges, in part, out of revenge – as he sees a castle as a "magnet for extermination."

Set in the medieval past, but also possibly in the future, The Castle tastes mostly strongly of the 1980s – of second-wave feminism retreating in the face of Thatcherism; of arms-race angst – in this unconvincing and drab production directed by Dean Gabourie.

Barker's dramatic dichotomies often seem stale or oversimplified here - especially the opposition set up between masculine science, and the strong, silent mathematician Krak, an feminine nature, and the earth mother that is Skinner."

This is a world written before we found fractals in flowers, or put STEM into feminism.

More enduringly compelling is The Castle's depiction of how even the strongest fortresses of ideology crumble in the face of one destabilizing factor: love. It turns pious Stucley into a madman and pacifist Skinner into a murderer.

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"Do you know the phrase 'love-life' – as if somehow this thing ran under or beside, as if you stepped from one life to the other, banality to love, love to banality?" says Skinner, played to the anachronistic hilt by a super-casual Burns. "No, love is in the cooking and the washing and the milking, no matter what, the colour of the love stains everything."

The biggest problem of Gabourie's production is that this love is mostly absent amid the pageantry and puppetry. With emotionally unclear performances from Dufays and Prystawska, in particular, the plot twists in the increasingly Jacobean second half seem senseless.

Barker's writing is destabilizing in tone – going from comic to catastrophic one second to the next. The dialogue veers from stream of consciousness to the didactic, from poetic to the pedantic.

In addition, GREAT SWATHS OF IT ARE WRITTEN IN ALL CAPS – and the ensemble here, especially the young men, has treated that as licence to shout, bellow and scream.

And yet, their Barker has no bite. Gabourie's production alternates merely between silly and solemn on an unattractive set of birches in Christmas-tree stands in front of burlap walls. There's little coherence to the acting styles – with knights straight out of Monty Python, a witch out of a romcom, and others delivering us straight-faced sturm und drang.

In isolation, there are scenes to savour: Blais and Stratford veteran Michael Spencer Davis, as a priest, have a very funny interaction in which the former instructs the latter to rewrite scripture to include more references to Jesus's genitalia. Burns's fresh, light touch as Skinner serves her well at first, while veteran actor Robert Nasmith makes an endearing impression as an elderly supplicant named Hush. Sean Sullivan, meanwhile, is an enjoyable cartoon as a builder named Holiday who always has one eye to the sky – and arrives on stage on a dolly, rolled down steps. That's one of the only scenes that I imagine was intended to be clunky.

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The Castle continues to Dec. 13 (

Editor's note: An earlier print and digital version of this story incorrectly stated the name of the actor playing Holiday. This digital version has been corrected.

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