Long ago, in a damp and dreary principality on the edge of a chilly estuary, lived a sexually ravenous ruler who never ended a sentence with a period, speaking only in endlessly digressive manic jags (Matthew DiBiasio). He longed for a wife, and found one in a lovely young nun named Ursula (Sarah McGregor). She returned his affections until Jesus told her not to, and she set out down the river with a boatload of nuns and her slightly unstable Mother Superior (Devon Allen) to call off the wedding. This does not go so well.
The inspiration for Ursula, an inscrutable tragedy by downbeat British playwright Howard Barker, sprang from the legend of St. Ursula, a fourth-century Christian princess who begged for a three-year deferral on her marriage to a pagan prince, took a trip to Rome with her 11,000 virgin companions, all of whom wound up being slaughtered by the Huns on the return trip. It’s a strange and unhappy tale, blending the Catholic church’s deep-seated dislike of sex with the general terror of life in premodern Europe.
Barker’s take is a dour linguistic thicket, largely unpunctuated, filled with unresolved asides and casual cruelties. The playwright is something of a tragedy evangelist, promoting aggressive works heavy on poetry and pathos. It’s exactly the sort of thing that seems to appeal to Devon Allen, a PSU professor, actor, director and head of Our Shoes Are Red/The Performance Lab, a loosely organized company that produced Will Eno’s cryptic play Thom Pain twice in the past two years.
The cruelty of the story and difficulty of Barker’s writing make Ursula a difficult play to like, but this production, co-directed by DoJump founder Carolyn Holzman and recent PSU grad Joshua Spencer, has some merit. It takes a while to get going, but as DiBiasio and Allen warm up their fearsome voices and the collision of lust and piety escalates, the situation onstage becomes genuinely terrifying. The weight of the story is echoed by the primary set piece, an eight-foot mass of wood that serves in turn as backdrop, table and giant seesaw. Love it or, more likely, hate it, Ursula is heavy stuff.
SEE IT: Ursula at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center, 5340 N Interstate Ave., 205-0715. 8 pm Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 pm Sundays. Closes Oct. 3. $5-$10.