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Scenes From an Execution
By Charles Wright
Maxwell is mature but youthful. She's versatile, equally adept at serious drama, comedy, and musical theater. Stars as luminous as Maxwell don't leave the firmament so prematurely. Well, not usually. She is currently playing Galactia, the unruly protagonist of Barker's monumental Scenes from an Execution for a second time. (She was nominated for a 2008-2009 Drama Desk Award when the Potomac presented the play, then, as now, under the direction of Richard Romagnoli).
Galactia is a fictional Renaissance painter who Barker has based, at least to some extent, on Artemisia Genteleschi (1593-circa 1652). She's forty-six, an advanced age for those times; and her personality is a Duke's mixture of sympathetic and off-putting qualities. She is ambitious but reckless, coarse, blunt, and pushy. In a society that favors straight-laced appearances (especially in women), she defies decorum, carrying on a voluptuous affair with a younger, married colleague, Carpeta (David Barlow).
The role is ideal for Maxwell at this stage in her career. Her interpretation of the passionate, prickly Galactia is as complex and compelling as one might hope. Yet her playing, outsized as it may be, never overpowers the performances of her colleagues.
The play's intricate plot concerns the execution and initial exhibition of a vast painting ("one thousand square feet of canvas"), commissioned by Urgentino (Alex Draper), the Venetian Dog — not only a woman but a temperamental, undiplomatic woman — is the unlikely winner of the competitive assignment.
Unworldly despite her years, Galactia bridles when the Doge, who determines which artists receive commissions and what becomes of their paintings after completion, urges her to fit the Lepanto canvas to his specifications. She hasn't taken into account the Doge's personal investment in the picture: his half-brother, Suffici (Bill Army), is admiral of the Venetian fleet that vanquished the Ottoman Empire in the Lepanto engagement, and family pride is at stake. Galactia's disputatious nature gets the best of her and the narrative takes off in surprising
Barker uses the Renaissance setting to reflect upon a host of timeless issues: the relationship of artists and critics, the dangers of government influence on the arts, the value of outsider voices in culture and politics, and the barriers, in all pursuits, to parity between the sexes. s.
Scenes from an Execution is a big play and possibly the most accessible of Barker's dramatic works. Scenic designer Hallie Zieselman has made the most of the modest-sized Atlantic Stage 2 by doing as little as possible. With scenery and furnishings at a minimum, Rogmanoli is free to direct his actors in ways that give an epic sweep to the proceedings. And his staging minimizes the signs of Barker's anti-realistic inclinations, though Meghan Leathers, as the walking, talking sketchbooks of Galactia and her daughter Supporta, materializes, from time to time, addressing the audience and adding a bit of Brechtian alienation to the enterprise.
A notable benefit of PTP/NYC's concurrent productions of Scenes and a double bill of plays by Barker and Caryl Churchill is the opportunity to enjoy, in an intimate playing space, the versatility of this fine group of actors. (See my review). The occasion is an object lesson in how first-rate thespians disappear, as though by magic, as they create vivid, distinct characters.
At the beginning of Scenes, Steven Dykes is a wounded veteran of Lepanto (the crossbow bolt embedded in his head a gruesome sight gag), full of bluster, yet poignant. Later, he's transformed to an unsympathetic cardinal, corrupt and supercilious. Pamela J. Grey's brainy politesse in the role of art critic Gina Rivera is a striking contrast to her earthy forcefulness as the title character in Judith, the Barker one-act on the above mentioned double bill. And Bill Army, as the admiral of the Venetian fleet, has a fey refinement that's a far cry from the virile venality with which he imbues his character, Jack, in Vinegar Tom.
If Scenes from an Execution is Maxwell's swan song on the New York stage, she's going out at the top of her game, in a role that might have been written for her, in the company of splendid colleagues. And, if she's gone after this, New York theater loses an artist with sufficient ego and integrity to temper her star quality with whatever it takes to be an integral part of an effective ensemble.