Under all his imagery and poetic devices, at heart, Howard Barker is a lot like Galactia, the realist center of Scenes from an Execution. This painter's calculating logic is matched by the playwright's argumentative tone: just as her paintings are said to sweat, so has it been necessary for companies to wrestle with his plays. It's a pleasure to see Potomac Theatre Project, under Richard Romagnoli's direction, bring such demanding art to life.Photo/Stan Barouh
Reviewed by Aaron Riccio
Scenes from an Execution opens literally, with its actors frozen in tableau as the narrator, aptly named Sketchbook (Allison Corke), draws us back to Venice, 1571. Galactia methodically pencils in her lover's buttocks, quick in her maddening brilliance to observe that "dead men float with their arses in the air." She is preparing to paint the great naval battle of Lepanto for the Doge, so she drives off her childish lover and focuses on Prodo (Peter Schmitz), "The Man With A Crossbow Bolt in His Head." He is content to be a freak, but neither Galactia nor Barker are willing to paint such a one-dimensional battle: instead, they shatter the audience's "peace with life" by daring to expose Truth.
The play next wrestles with the figurative interpretation, with Galactia's struggle to look, not to simply see. This is theatrical contradiction that drives the political strife, for Galactia has no intention of making Admiral Suffici (Robert Zukerman) "glorious," as his brother, the Doge, demands. Instead, she plans to paint him with a look of indifference in a sea of corpses, daring Cardinal Ostensible (Timothy Deenihan) to punish her and hence martyr the idea she believes in. Suffici warns her that "There is no such thing as what happened. Only viewed of what happened. Just as there is no such thing as a man. Only images of him." Her own daughter, Supporta (Lucy Faust), and Gina Rivera (Patricia Buckley), warn her for other reasons: her actions may damn the cause of women painters throughout Venice. But like Riddler, an equally stony Barker protagonist (A Hard Heart), Galactia believes she knows best, and her pleasure in this allows her to gleefully cast aside as many lives as it takes.
The final section of the play plunges into a symbolic interpretation, with Galactia "blinded" in prison for her treason, and Carpeta transfixed like his own passion paintings. It's a mark of excellent direction that Richard Romagnoli so easily swims between the styles: though Barker lives by the text, his scripts would simply be essays without some sort of visual flair. Galactia shows her single-minded focus by causing a scene in a funeral procession, one body fighting a current of silent and solemn gatherers. Later, the entire width of the stage sets up a panoramic view of the "Battle of Lepanto," entirely through the eyes of its actors.
Jan Maxwell makes a perfect Galactia, playing the painter like a mature Joan of Arc. She fights like a warrior as she defends her work from three drunken soldiers, and then reverts to childish behavior as she giddily unveils her finished work to her lover. As for this lover, David Barlow provides a necessary balance for Maxwell's moodiness, exaggerating just enough to be comic, but no so much that he distorts himself beyond the needy humanity of the later scenes. The play is also aided by Alex Draper, who plays the pompous Doge with a constant menace beneath his affability. Barker's words are layered with double meanings, for his characters, politically motivated, are very clever: Mr. Draper (who starred in last year's No End to Blame) is there, word for word, but with an unctuous charisma all his own.
Howard Barker's plays are not performed often enough in New York, perhaps because the material sometimes seems dated or because the conflicts are so intellectual. Both of these things are misconceptions by those who only glance at the script: that's the mistake of seeing without looking. Potomac's strong production of Scenes from an Execution is one hell of an opportunity to really look at an artist's struggle to say something; it is far more than mere drapery.
Scenes from an Execution (2hr 15min; 1 intermission)
Potomac Theatre Project @ Atlantic Stage 2 (330 West 16th Street)
Tickets (212-279-4200): $24.00
Performances (through 7/26): See Web site for details