Howard Barker’s A Hard Heart unfolds in a kind of Brechtian Never-Never-Land, a timeless realm of fantastical extremes. Here, Praxis (Melissa Friedman), a queen in a flowing Renaissance gown, relies on Riddler (Kathleen Chalfant) to develop a strategy that will save their city, long under siege. Praxis so trusts Riddler’s intellect and strategic ability that she not only puts her faith in her adviser but also risks the fates of her citizens. When each of Riddler’s daring traps is overcome by the advancing forces, Praxis allows Riddler to execute increasingly extreme—and often ludicrous—plans. It’s a cautionary tale with an incendiary ending that brings to mind not only today’s warmongering leaders, but also the poor and misused intelligence reports leading up to the Iraq War.
A Hard Heart provides a plum role for Chalfant, who electrifies as Riddler, bringing the character’s arrogance, austerity, and pride to life with a feral intensity. Chalfant explores in equal measure Riddler’s other—contradictory—qualities: her tenderness for her too-close son Atilla (James Wallert) and her strange attraction to Seemore (Thom Sesma), a deranged, self-professed genius who amorously stalks her. Director Will Pomerantz’s sure-handed production plays out in designer Narelle Sissons’s ingenious set: a huge freight container that unfolds to create various interiors, such as the city’s temple and Riddler’s studio garret. A sense of doom hovers throughout, though there’s an excitement, too—the sort generated by intelligent political theater.