Just Like a Woman: On Scenes from an Execution

photo by Stan Barouh

The Potomac Theatre Project has made a specialty of doing productions of plays by the under-seen British playwright Howard Barker in recent years, with actress Jan Maxwell often taking the lead. Maxwell did Barker’s Scenes from an Execution for PTP in 2008, and now they are doing a revival of it that Maxwell has said might be her theater swan song—but hopefully that’s just discouraged talk of the moment for her. Anyone viewing her spectacular performance in this first-rate-in-all-respects production would have to say to Maxwell, “Please don’t leave us yet!”

Maxwell plays Galactia, a painter in 16th century Venice who has been given a commission to create a large canvas celebrating a naval victory at sea, the Battle of Lepanto. Galactia is one of those people whose brain is always working much faster and quicker than everyone else around her. She doesn’t care about her appearance, she sits in a distinctly unladylike squat; she is sensual and demanding, and she is determined at all times to tell the truth as she sees it.

In the most touching scene in Scenes from an Execution, Galactia disrupts the funeral of an old lover with her hyped-up behavior, finally driving the pious mourners from the room with her salacious sex talk and then standing over the coffin and saying a few precious, critical, specific words about this man she loved. “A dead painter, claimed,” she says. “The dissenting voice, drowned in compliments. Never happier than when lying in the gutter with a bricklayer, drunk out of mind. Human, warm, and round. And yet a frightful liar. Couldn’t put a brush to paper without lying—the happy poor, the laughing rags of tramps and scabby dogs pawing the dirt. Guilty old fornicator…”

Everyone thinks that Galactia is crazy, and maybe she is a little crazy by the standards of a hypocritical and polite society. She is always telling people off and telling them what they really are, even her own two daughters, and there’s a kind of brutality to the way she does this because clearly it is all just an impersonal matter to her. This is a play written in heightened, heady, muscular language, and it makes large demands on all the actors but particularly on Maxwell, who has to play her lead role in a constant state of furious tumult. Here’s a sample of her verbiage as she does some truth telling with her hack painter lover Carpeta (David Barlow), who has just told her she lacks pity: “Rather than pity the dead man I would say—there—there is the man who did it, blame him, identify, locate responsibility. Or else the world is just a pool, a great pool of dirty tears through which vile men in boots run splashing.”

Maxwell flings herself into this meal of a role with her whole body and finds all the variety she needs in it, and her fellow players are all at her high level. Barlow is without vanity as Carpeta, while Pamela J. Gray brings a fascinating kind of circumspect intelligence to the role of an art critic who pulls strings behind the scenes. As the Doge of Venice, who has to deal with the fall-out of Galactia’s powerfully anti-war painting, Alex Draper wrestles with all the complexity of an intelligent, artistically aware man who is nonetheless an official of the state.

Given its title and given the rudely honest behavior of its heroine, Scenes from an Execution seems to be building to a tragic close for Galactia, but Barker is not interested in conventional playwriting that portrays good people and bad people. At a key juncture when she is asked to defend herself and her painting, Galactia suddenly dries up. She wants to take a stand and be in the right, but she is also a life-loving and hedonistic woman who would like to gather some more pleasure for herself. The various twists and turns the play takes on the road to its very ambiguous conclusion are all unexpected and very life-like in their lurching here and there for closure. This is a play, finally, about various kinds of control and how criticism can be used to control public response, an unusual theme, to say the least, and this outstanding production is everything theater should be: engaged, troubling, passionate, intellectual, and dedicated to the heat of the moment and the passage of that heat.

Scenes from an Execution is staged at the Atlantic Theatre Company, 330 W. 16th Street, New York. For more info, visit here.

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