Scenes from an Execution
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
July 6, 2008
Why didn't I feel engaged by Potomac Theatre Project's revival of Howard Barker's Scenes from an Execution? The subject matter is important and timely and is presented by the author the way one wishes to see serious issues presented on stage, which is to say as the give-and-take discourse of intelligent and articulate characters.
The subject is the freedom of artists in a so-called democracy. Barker sets his play in a fictionalized version of 16th century Venice, which (in the play, anyway) regards itself as a democratic state. The Doge of Venice, Urgentino, has commissioned a maverick painter named Galactia to paint a huge canvas (1000 square feet!) on the Battle of Lepanto. He thinks she knows—and indeed, she does know—that her government expects something that will celebrate Venice's victory in this battle, something that will glorify her country's dominion and values and so on. But she paints something else nevertheless: she says she wants to paint the truth, and for her the truth is that this battle was horrible and bloody and awful. She makes the Venetian admiral in command of the fleet—Urgentino's brother, Suffici—into a hard-hearted, callous wretch. She makes the carnage, to use a word that crops up more than once in the play, coarse.
She gets into trouble, not surprisingly: most of the play's second act depicts her inquisition at the hands of the Doge and one of his chief ministers, a Cardinal named Ostensible, and then her imprisonment and subsequent, um, rehabilitation. Barker makes the ethical/moral questions inherent in his story more and more complicated and ambiguous as the drama unfolds, and puts a number of speeches in the mouths of his characters that are entirely contradictory yet utterly unimpeachable.
It certainly sounds like the recipe for a challenging and exhilarating couple of hours of theatre....and yet, it left me cold, and I've been trying to figure out the reason. I've come up with a few possibilities. First and probably foremost, the play itself IS cold. At least in Jan Maxwell's characterization, Galactia is an oddly passionless artist: I wondered how a person capable of painting something that (everyone in the play tells us) is the kind of life-changing work of art that, say, Guernica was could herself be so lacking in fire and depth. Barker gives Galactia a love/hate relationship with a fellow painter named Carpeta, but Maxwell and David Barlow set off no sparks here; her rejections and overtures register as nothing more than shallow caprice.
The names of the characters suggest that Barker is writing an allegory rather than something to be taken at face value, yet director Robert Romagnoli stages the piece naturalistically, albeit anachronistically (the women wear period gowns but the men's garb feels more contemporary; a moment when Carpeta zips up his trousers is particularly jarring).
And the performances here are wildly uneven. Maxwell still seemed to be struggling with some of her lines, and as noted shows little of the complexity that I imagine Galactia must possess. Barlow (Carpeta) and Alex Draper (Urgentino) never come across as her equals, which is problematic; only Robert Zukerman as Suffici and Timothy Deenihan as Ostensible accomplish that. Just one performance actually moved me in Scenes from an Execution: Willie Orbison's, near the end of the first act, as a sailor who happens to glimpse the still-in-process painting of the Battle of Lepanto. His face—rapt, wracked—displays the immensity of what Galactia is presumably communicating in her work; something so nakedly, indisputably honest that it would turn a democracy upside-down for what it revealed about it.