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PTP/NYC Presents “Scenes from an Execution” @ Atlantic Stage 2

In Scenes from an Execution, now playing as part of Potomac Theatre Project’s summer residency at Atlantic Stage 2, the idea of an artist “selling out” is not a new one. Playwright Howard Barker eschews contemporary artists and their struggle with commodification, focusing his dramatic lens on a Renaissance-era painter–and a middle-aged female one, at that.

Jan Maxwell as Galactia. Photo by Stan Barouh.
The Artist. (Jan Maxwell as Galactia. Photo by Stan Barouh.)

Scenes from an Execution follows Galactia (Jan Maxwell) as she receives a commission from Urgentino, The Doge of Venice (Alex Draper), to depict a recent battle that Venice has won. Urgentino recognizes Galactia’s great talent, but he is concerned that she will be unable to defer to the requirements of the Admiral (Bill Army) or the Cardinal (Steven Dykes). While her lover, fellow painter Carpeta (David Barlow), and her daughter Supporta (Lana Meyer) warn Galactia to adhere to the Doge’s wishes, Galactia remains adamant. She wants to convey the violence and horror of war in her painting, and not even the threat of execution will stop her from realizing her vision.

Lovers. Painters. (L-R: David Barlow as Carpeta, Jan Maxwell as Galactia. Photo by Stan Barouh)
Lovers. Painters. (L-R: David Barlow as Carpeta, Jan Maxwell as Galactia. Photo by Stan Barouh.)

Out of all of Barker’s plays that I have seen so far, Scenes from an Execution has been the most approachable. While there are no clear winners, there is an unexpected transfer of sympathies in the play. At first, Galactia’s relentless defense of her artistic integrity appears to be noble, while Venice and the Church seem to be unimaginative tyrants. As the play progresses, however, we see that Galactia’s stubbornness would make Ayn Rand proud… and I don’t mean that as a compliment. Galactia, no matter how noble her ideals are, has been hired to create something that edifies Venice. Moreover, when her loved ones, fellow colleagues, and employers inform Galactia of this repeatedly, she ignores them all for her sole mission. While Galactia’s creative desires should be expressed, they can be shown in another painting–a painting not made on the state’s dime.

Church and State. (L-R: Bill Army as The Admiral, Alex Draper as the Doge. Photo by Stan Barouh)
Church and State. (L-R: Bill Army as The Admiral, Alex Draper as the Doge. Photo by Stan Barouh.)

At one point during the play, Galactia says, “I haven’t time to listen to your motives, and who cares about them anyway? If we all had to understand one another’s motives!” Still, I wish there was a point in the play where the audience could listen to her motivations. It is clear that Galactia thrives on creating works containing anger and violence, but there is little else that explains her connection to her art and why she wants to convey these dark messages. As a result, her willingness to become a martyr for her art devolves into shallow petulance. While Barker appears to understand the appeal of selling out, he leaves the artist’s quest for true expression a mystery.

For more information on Scenes from an Execution, click here.

“The Castle” @ Atlantic Stage 2

 David Barlow as Stucley and Quentin Maré as Krak. (Photo credit: Stan Barouh)
David Barlow as Stucley and Quentin Maré as Krak. (Photo credit: Stan Barouh)

Potomac Theatre Project, a 27-year-old repertory theatre company with a seven-year-old residency in New York City, presents the New York premiere of Howard Barker’s The Castle at Atlantic Stage 2.

The play is set in 12th century England, as Stucley (David Barlow) returns home after leaving seven years ago for the Crusades. His wife Ann (Jennifer Van Dyck) made changes while Stucley has been away: leaving the church covered in animal excrement, birthing illegitimate children with different fathers, and having a relationship with Skinner, a witch (Jan Maxwell). Stucley, who has remained chaste the entire seven years, is none too pleased with the news. He dedicates his time to restoring his domain and enlisting the help of Krak (Quentin Maré) an engineer who designs a new castle for the estate. The set (designed by Jon Craine) at the top of the show is comprised of rectangular green stretches of fabric that are taken down piece by piece until the stage is bare. Actors portraying builders during intermission replace the fallen curtains with stretches of barbed wire that frame the stage for the second act. The dismantling of the feminine and fertile sheets of fabric to make for the cold, masculine metals of armament and war is a frightening transition. But gender isn’t the only issue at stake in The Castle. Conflicts of religion, race, and sex also build as the characters search for love and power during the castle’s tenuous construction.

Jan Maxwell as Skinner and Jennifer Van Dyck as Ann. (Photo credit: Stan Barouh)
Jan Maxwell as Skinner and Jennifer Van Dyck as Ann. (Photo credit: Stan Barouh)

The performances in The Castle are superb, and while five-time Tony Award nominee Jan Maxwell is the show’s star, she is not necessarily the star of the show. The cast equally supports each other, and they all have their own great moments of wit, longing, and despair. To be fair, the cast has help from Richard Romagnoli’s clean direction and Howard Barker’s well-written script. I am honestly surprised that The Castle premiered in 1985 and is having its New York premiere almost thirty years later. The play has material that I’ve never seen on stage. Stucley’s scene with the priest on creating a new church has both some of the funniest and most profane dialogue ever written for the stage. Likewise, Skinner, tied to the corpse of the castle builder she killed as punishment, evokes grim humor and disgust. The text, too, is fantastic. Barker’s dense language is a sublime meld of coarse obscenities and beautiful verse, all clearly enunciated by the actors with fully realized intentions. (I did find it interesting that Krak, a Middle Eastern character whose ethnicity is often referenced, is played by an ethnically ambiguous actor who resembles John Malkovich more than, say, Naveen Andrews.)

Jan Maxwell as Skinner. (Photo credit: Stan Barouh)

Quickly enough, though, PTP’s production makes clear that The Castle may not necessarily be taking place in 12th century England. The characters’ dialogue resembles a Jacobean black comedy in one beat, an expletive-ridden Mamet play in the next. Jule Emerson’s costume design is a historical shuffle of Middle Ages tunics, 20th century military berets, and contemporary construction-worker boots and helmets. At the end of the first act, Skinner is haunted by the shouting voices of men, personified by a group of actors wearing military uniforms in disparate historical periods—from the Napoleonic Wars to World War II. And the priest’s rant against the “wickedness to so wantonly cast off the gift of life” closely resembles the rhetoric used by today’s politicians concerning women’s reproductive rights. That is not to say The Castle has easy parallels to today’s issues. That would be a far too simplistic rendering of the play. But there is a complexity to the world of The Castle that transcends its setting, a complexity that makes us wonder what fate will befall men and women, Muslims and Christians, the powerful and the powerless. The director notes in the program that it is “best to leave audiences to wrestle with meaning, no easy task.” No easy task indeed.

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