5 Questions I’ve Never Been Asked: Jim Petosa


Jim Petosa
Jim Petosa, Courtesy
BU Photo Services

New York audiences may think this reflexively liberal town is the epicenter of the political-theater world, but it has long seemed to me that the Potomac Theatre Project might beg to differ. Several years ago, PTP came to my attention because the group, which is based in Washington, D.C., naturally, was planning to mount a summer repertory in New York City and I thought the idea seemed brave, auspicious and intriguing. I interviewed Jim Petosa, one of the three co-founders of the group, for Back Stage and I was additionally impressed by the self-assurance of the organization. In time I dug a little deeper and discovered — well, here’s some of the boilerplate from PTP’s website:

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The Potomac Theatre Project (PTP) reflects “the nightmares and hoaxes by which we live.” The company was founded in 1987 by the artistic triumvirate of Cheryl Faraone, Jim Petosa and Richard Romagnoli. PTP is an outgrowth of The New York Theatre Studio, an Off-Off Broadway company founded by Richard Romagnoli and Cheryl Faraonewhich produced in Manhattan from 1977-1985. During its 20 seasons (1987-2006) in Washington DC and Maryland, the company produced 75 main stage productions along with numerous new play readings and late night experimental productions.

Last year’s PTP production of Howard Barker’s Scenes From an Execution, meanwhile, has endowed the group with a lot more Big Apple cred — Jan Maxwell, who appeared in the production, was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for Best Leading Actress. The year before, another Barker play, No End of Blame, was nominated quadruply by the New York Innovative Theatre Awards.

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So, when I received a press head’s up from publicist David Gibbs about PTP’s summer season this year, I thought it would be a great time to check in with Petosa, who I remember being terrific for a quote. The season, being mounted at the Atlantic Stage 2 (330 W. 16th St.) includes the U.S. premiere of Howard Barker’s The Europeans, directed by Richard Romagnoli, another co-founder of the group, and a revival of Therese Raquin, adapted by Neal Bell from the novel by Emile Zola, which is under Petosa’s direction. Performances run June 30 through July 26. It is worth noting that the production are “in association” with Middlebury College, in accordance with a long relationship between the institutions.

Here are descriptions of both plays:

Howard Barker’s The Europeanstakes place in war-ravaged Vienna after the Turkish invasion of the late 1600’s, during which Christianity and Islam brutally collided. Vienna is now a place where manners have disappeared, women sell their bodies for loaves of bread and the blood of Turkish prisoners runs free. The Emperor craves the normality of the past, but only Starhemburg, the military commander, realizes that a new future must be forged, and sees Katrin — a young woman mutilated, raped and impregnated by the Turks — as the agent for change. Thus begins a harrowing love story. The Europeans unapologetically reveals us as primal beasts struggling to learn the love of self and finding the spirit to love each another.

Originally a novel by Emile Zola published in 1867, Therese Raquin is a dark erotic exploration of the human subconscious told through a series of short scenes that alternate between comic and horrific. Therese, a young half-French, half-Algerian woman, was unhappily married to her sickly first cousin by a well-intentioned but overbearing aunt. When the opportunity arises, she enters into an affair with her husband’s friend, Laurent, leading to brutal and tragic consequences.

For tickets to either production (remember, they run in repertory), visit www.TicketCentral.com or call 212-279-4200. For more information, visit www.PotomacTheatreProject.org.

And now, five questions Jim Petosa has never been asked. And a bonus question.

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
I remember making fairly regular appearances on WETA Radio’s afternoon arts program, hosted by Robert Aubrey Davis, one of the finest interviewers I have had the pleasure of talking with. He once asked, “The play seems to want to change the audience in some way — in working on it, did the play change you in any way?” I thought that was perceptive.

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“Why don’t you give the audience what it wants?”

3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“When you direct actors, do you…like…get to mess with their heads?”

4) In terms of the monumentality of its title character, Therese Raquin has always struck me as a kind of 19th century Lear for women actors. Would you agree with that?
I agree with it in the sense that it is a role of tremendous challenge, demand and range. It calls for equal amounts of human truth and a strong demand for sweeping theatricality. In those ways, Therese is a character that certainly stands up to the big Shakespeareans.

5) Actually, while we’re on the topic of the 19th century and women, in what ways does Bell reexamine the role of women in society for 21st century sensibilities?
Neal’s acclaimed prowess as an adaptor comes from his ability to take a novel and be true to it while making it his own at same time. The integrity of his adaptations is dual in their excellence as dramatic representations of the original and as clear representations of Neal’s own voice as a contemporary writer. It’s a gift and he has it in abundance.

Bonus Question:

6) In this new, post-Bush, nonetheless bitterly partisan era, how do you envision the term “political theater” being defined, both in general and for yourself individually?
The necessity of an intensely political theatre must transcend the keepers of power of the moment. While the post-Bush era may change the conversation, this new era provides us with even more provocative questions: Is this a new era of idealism? Is it a simple reaction to Bush’s tremendously failed presidency? Do we and our current political leaders really have the stomach for real change? Are the extremely powerful and repressive forces that advocate social conservatism truly undone in this new era, or are they, in fact, lurking in the shadows to moderate the perceived extremism of the left?

There are more questions today than there were a year ago. A year ago, we simply needed to point out absurd, hapless and dangerous failure. Now we must ask ourselves: Who are we? Where are we going? What fundamental change are we really willing to embrace? This is a time when political theater can move away from simply fomenting reaction and move towards the more complex questions of who we want to become.