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.

PTP/NYC Presents “GERTRUDE—THE CRY” @ Atlantic Stage 2

The Potomac Theatre Project returns to Atlantic Stage 2 this summer with two main-stage productions. I was immediately interested in Gertrude—The Cry, a play examining the passions of a woman mostly known for being the mother of a famously temperamental Danish prince.

This is not a regular “retelling” of a well-known story–nor should it be, under playwright Howard Barker’s pen. His work, a favorite of PTP (last year they tackled The Castle), is known as “theatre of catastrophe,” because Barker makes “no attempt to satisfy any demand for clarity or the deceptive simplicity of a single message.” Though Barker’s dialogue can be difficult to find meaning, it doesn’t fail to shock and titillate with its combination of heightened language and obscene subject matter.

Pamela J. Gray as Gertrude and David Barlow as Hamlet. (Photo by Stan Barouh)
Pamela J. Gray as Gertrude and David Barlow as Hamlet. (Photo by Stan Barouh)

Barker’s Gertrude (a stunning Pamela J. Gray) is not a misunderstood figure who has been wronged. She is just as culpable of her husband’s murder as Claudius, if not more so, taking on a Lady Macbeth level of glee as she plots with Claudius to kill the king—and in a shocking turn, have sex over the king as he is in his final death throes.

Later in the play, Hamlet (David Barlow) laments that “it’s so hard to shock them.” At first, Hamlet’s assertion rings false, as Gertrude’s pursuit of sex and betrayal bring about a host of lewd acts and words. But the second half of Gertrude—The Cry becomes a forgone bloody Shakespearean conclusion (It’s still based on Hamlet, after all). Its shock value decreases not because it’s a tragedy, but because the characters’ motivations are never fully defined.

Do not let that stop you from seeing this play, though. Fantastic performances abound, from Alex Draper’s all-knowing servant to Pamela J. Gray’s poised and devastatingly sensual Gertrude. My favorite had to be David Barlow’s Hamlet. His performance allowed me to finally see why a grown man (“student” though he may be) is a man-child overly obsessed with his mother’s sex life. Major props also go to Barker evening the gender quota, adding Isola (Kathryn Kates), Claudius’ mother, and Ragusa (Meghan Leathers), a much more capable foil to Ophelia (nonexistent in this play). And Barker’s language is a perverse delight to hear.

Gertrude—The Cry is not your mother’s Hamlet, nor would you want it to be. It is a fascinating and frustrating portrait of a woman who usually stands silent in another fascinating and frustrating play.

“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.

“Serious Money” at Atlantic Stages

Richard III could have made an excellent stock broker.

At least, I think that’s what Caryl Churchill would have us assume in her stock market-set black comedy Serious Money, which unfolds as an uncanny relative to old Jacobean dramas. Written almost entirely in rhymed verse, Serious Money reminds us that the old power players of lore have found new contemporary incarnations as money players. Except, instead of royal sovereignty as leverage, they’ve got money. And ambition. But mostly, money.

Lots and lots of money.

Caryl Churchill is a master at experimenting with her plays’ structures to reflect their content. Her most famous play, Cloud Nine, examines gender and race in society not only in the characters’ spoken thoughts and actions, but also in its cross-temporal setting (Act 1 takes place in colonial Africa, Act 2 in 1980’s London with the same characters) and cross-gender/race casting (Some male characters are played by women and vice verse). Blue Heart looks at lying in family relationship by having the characters’ language slowly deconstruct into arbitrary (yet somehow still comprehensible) nonsense. However, Churchill makes the most news with her critical stance against Israel through her recent play-writing.

In line with the Potomac Theatre Project’s mission of producing culturally-relevant, thought-provoking works, this revival, originally performed in 1987, examines the London Stock Exchange shortly after the “Big Bang” of 1986, which was the sudden deregulation of the stock market under Margaret Thatcher. This and the new digitization of trading makes for an upheaval of market rules. Anything goes.

Serious Money dramatizes the chaos that results from unrestricted, now computerized, greed. At several points throughout the play, traders jabber and yell incomprehensibly across the floor or into their phones as they stare at the numbers screen. This chaos also has global reaches. This unusually large cast of characters hail from England, New York, Scotland (Norma and I love a good Scot accent every now and then), Peru, and Ghana. Most of the actors play multiple roles, all skillfully and comically. But it all makes up for more chaos and confusion in an already convoluted play. The plot centers around the mysterious suicide of an up-and-coming broker Jake Todd. His sister, Scilla, decides to investigate the death. In the process, we land upon the shady dealings of American banker Zac Zackerman and British dealer Billy Corman.

6-p David Barlow as Zac Zackerman, Jeanne LaSala Taylor as Jacinta Condor and Mathew Nakitare as Jake Todd Photo: Stan Barouh

Now, I definitely couldn’t follow all the shady, not-so-underhanded industry. There’s a lot of industry speak (only slightly helped by a glossary in the playbill), and the rhymed verse and large cast only tend to exasperate the issue. But I grasped enough to know that money is not the only currency being used in tradings – there are also lots of political favors and sexual promises. Some women, like Jacinta, a Peruvian businesswoman, and Scilla know how to use their sexuality to get the better of their competitors. Others, like Mrs. Etherington (played by Megan Byrne, whose hilarious expressions are regular scene-stealers) get manipulated by their male superiors and lose their way.

The play’s selling point is its black humor. I felt like a lot of the jokes got lost in the frantic chaos and the wordiness of the play. But there are good laughs to be had by the play’s excellent cast, as well as in some of Churchill’s unexpected choice of rhymes.

PTP heralds Serious Money as prophetic of our own cultural moment, in that the baddies get away with their misdeeds and unite intrinsically with political forces to advance their greed. And while I agree that this decade’s financial experience mimics that of Thatcher’s England, the play still remains stuck in its chaotic time and place, making it a bit difficult to orient yourself in.

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