Scenes from an Execution
nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
May 25, 2007
This revival of Howard Barker's Scenes from an Execution, a smart drama about an art commission heralding the victory in a 16th century battle between the Ottoman Empire and the Holy League, resonates today in ways it may not have when first produced in 1996. At present, war is very much on our minds, faith-based programs bring church and state together, and censorship crops up with increasing frequency.
The play is about making art and the process of its execution. In the play, Urgentino, the powerful magistrate of Venice, reviews the sketches for the large commission awarded to Galactia, a renowned (but fictional) artist of realist paintings. He suggests alterations in the compositions and changes in the countenance of certain figures based on political favor and personal preference. In the end, Galactia ignores his comments and depicts the horrors of war rather than glorifying Venice's victory in the Battle of Lepanto. The painting and Galactia's feisty and uncompromising attitude enrage Urgentino and Ostensibile, a cardinal with great power, and they agree that she must be punished. They imprison her in a dungeon without light, and give the commission to Galactia's lover, Carpeta, a mediocre painter known for his many renderings of Christ Among the Flocks. It is Rivera, a powerful female art critic, who saves Galactia—not by changing her, but by reinterpreting the painting.
Scenes from an Execution illustrates the power of art to communicate and to genuinely move people. Barker's language is rhythmic, colorful, at times comic, and very descriptive, as when one character alludes to the painting as "a waterfall of flesh." While the painting is never seen, the reactions to it are intense. Carpeta cries when he sees it. This is powerful stuff, especially with the subject of censorship hovering over Galactia's shoulder. However, I, as a member of the audience, could not get as emotionally close to the painting as Carpeta. The play wanders. For example, there is a feminist edge that dominates. The historic element lends color, and the plotting of the doge with the cardinal introduces a sinister backdrop. There is a suggestion of homosexuality that goes nowhere and plenty of promiscuity on Galactia's part. All this is interesting, but it dilutes the point and begins to look like a camera that cannot focus. Barker gives his characters names that could be out of Dickens. They add a comedic bent, but in this production—primarily a drama—the names only distract. More cohesive direction from Zander Teller would have helped.
The cast is spirited, but not entirely in command of this production. Elena McGhee dominates as the strong-willed, independent Galactia. Other standouts are Charles Hendricks, who successfully delivers poignancy and comedy in multiple roles, and Corey Tazmania as Galactia's daughter.
Neil Becker's set, a series of wooden supports criss-crossing the stage like the back of an enormous canvas, is both simple and appropriate, but large swaths of cloth are not used skillfully enough to denote the changes in venues. The best costume by Amy Elizabeth Bravo is the red floor-length cotton smock worn by McGhee. Crumpled and loose, its large pocket holding pencils or chalk, it allows her to sketch as inspiration strikes her, and adds credibility to the role of artist. Joe Novak's lighting, particularly in the prison scene, is subtle—dark enough to be painful for an artist, not so dark that we can't see the prisoner. Moody sound by Mick O'Brien is quite effective.