by Deirdre Donovan
artist, the state, the church, and the critic are all alive and kicking in
Howard Baker’s Scenes from an Execution, now in a potent revival at
Atlantic Stage 2. And with Jan Maxwell leading the cast, who could ask
for anything more?
you are an aficionado of Baker’s canon, you hardly need a nudge to head
downtown to catch this latest iteration of his play, under the aegis of Potomac
Theatre Project (PTC). As directed by Richard Romagnoli, it pushes the
theatrical envelope and debates the big questions on art and the artist, the
state and its use (and abuse) of power, and the church and morality. And, oh
yes. The critic is crucial in this play—and the one in the real catbird seat.
Scenes began its life as a
1994 BBC radio play, with Glenda Jackson. Based loosely on the life of female
artist Artemisia Genteleschi, Baker morphed the real painter into his fictive
Venetian artist Galactia, who is commissioned by the State of Venice to create
an artwork that would immortalize their great victory at the Battle of Lepanto.
makes Galactia a firebrand and iconoclast. And then he ratchets up everything
by having the free-thinking artist commit a glaring faux pas: She honestly
paints the naval battle but doesn’t interpret it as the government officials
had hoped. Instead of the canvas illustrating the Venetians’ courage in
battle, she paints the great historic event as a raw scene of human carnage.
Unsurprisingly, the powers-that-be are outraged, and use their political power
to destroy Galactia.
Maxwell is no stranger to the Barker canon or the Potomac Company. She
recently performed in the PTP/NYC’s 2013 premiere of Castles (Drama Desk
nomination). And, in 2008, she performed Galactia in Scenes
(Drama Desk Award nomination) with this politically-aware company. She now
returns to the prickly part with much gusto. Her Galactia wears no make-up and
projects a devil-may-care attitude toward love and life. Maxwell fully
realizes the sensual self-centered artist, and doesn’t neglect conveying that
she is also a genius.
prepared for some nudity. The opening scene has Galactia sketching her lover
Carpeta (David Barlow) in the buff. It is intentionally jolting, and very
true-to-form for a Barker play. Barker, who coined the term “Theatre of
Catastrophe” for his work, continually rips away the veil of convention in his
plays. Indeed he invites the audience to rethink their views on art and the
responsibilities of the artist in society. No, this is not your grandmother’s
play. But it will force you to think about the intersection of art and
morality, and the difficult questions that an artist must wrestle with to
create something of integrity.
Maxwell and David Barlow photographer
this is clearly Maxwell’s star turn, the rest of the ensemble passes muster.
David Barlow plays Galactia’s married lover and painter who specializes in
pious paintings (think Christ as the Good Shepherd) convincingly.
Gray and Steven Dykes
J. Gray, as the promiscuous and combative critic Rivera, is intriguing to watch
as she goes toe-to-toe with Galactia. And Steven Dykes, as the Cardinal
Ostensible, gives new proof that ecclesiastics are not immune to political
creative team does much with a little. Hallie Zieselman’s scenic design is
spare and uncluttered. Mark Evancho’s clean lighting ensures that the
performers’ facial expressions and all the action comes into focus. And Mira
Veikley’s period costumes evoke the 16th century just fine.
the British dramatist Barker indisputably has made his mark in theater history,
his plays aren’t for those who like their theater neat and tidy. Barker gives
us characters that embody disturbing paradoxes. So park your prejudices at the
door—and forget the old traditions. Barker is well-known for turning
conventional ideas inside-out, and he boldly does just that in Scenes.
Jan Maxwell recently shared in a Time Out interview that she is bidding
farewell to her acting career with this production. If your jaw just dropped
down in disbelief, you are not alone in your reaction. Maxwell has had a
remarkable career, with five Tony nominations, and glowing reviews for her
theater efforts over the decades. But don’t completely despair over the news.
Perhaps the right play will come along, and woo her back to the stage. In any
case, it seems like a premature retirement for this 58 year-old performer.
said, if Scenes turns out to be Maxwell’s last hurrah, you have a very
good reason to postpone your Hamptons vacation and head down to the Atlantic
Stage 2 to see her give a sterling performance in an intimate performing
space. You won’t regret it.
the Atlantic Stage 2, located at 330 West 16th Street, Manhattan.
can be purchased online at ptpnyc.org or by calling 212-352-3101 or
866-811-4111. For more information, visit ptpnyc.org.
time is 2 hours and 10 minutes with an intermission.