The Past Through the Prism of the Present

scenes_from_an_execution.jpgIn Scenes from an Execution, Howard Barker recreates the contentious, inspired world of artistic Venice in the 1570s, populating a rich historical landscape with fictional painters and patrons. But the themes and emotions the play can arouse in an audience today, as in QED Productions’ current revival, deftly directed by Zander Teller, pulse as though modern, and almost factual. The characters’ tangled relationships and loyalties, portrayed with intensity by the leading actors, not only draw you into the individual struggles that shape them and their world, but demand your engagement from start to finish with the intellectual and moral issues from which those struggles are born.

But back to the beginning, when the series of “catastrophes” (to use the word Barker does for his work, which he has referred to as a “Theatre of Catastrophe”) has yet to unfold and all we know is that one of the most famous painters in 16th century Venice is a woman, Galactia (played with wit and vigor by Elena McGhee), and she has been commissioned by the city-state’s Doge to paint a massive victory canvas of the recent Battle of Lepanto, a huge and bloody naval battle in which the short-lived Holy League defeated the Ottoman Empire. Being a woman of unusual (especially for her era) independence of mind and spirit, Galactia naturally has no intention of painting a typical war-glorifying scene: she intends to show the battle and its fleshly consequences as realistically (i.e., gruesomely) as possible, and naturally this infuriates everyone from the Doge through Galactia’s daughters.

Barker’s approach can be didactic and preachy; one device he uses is to have an art critic – Rivera, the other strong, intelligent woman in the city, given an elegant presence by Julia Beardsley O’Brien – walk onstage where the action is frozen and describe and analyze it as a supposed preparatory painting by Galactia, and he also tends to spell out the philosophical issues at hand a bit too explicitly in the dialogue. Fortunately, the actors’ lively performances mostly ameliorate this shortcoming, so that even though you may be listening to Galactia lay out her rationale to her daughters, who are lesser creatures than she, McGhee’s delivery, punctuated with a laugh that manages to be carefree and sharp at once, makes the explicitness of the wording weigh less; similarly with the weak Doge, whose overwritten litany of complaints and demands is more palatable via Micah Freedman’s air of nervous pomposity. Thus truths about life and art that might come across as worn seem more like insight.

As Galactia’s work on the canvas progresses and her supporters progressively desert her because of her refusal to change her approach for anything, not to advance women’s position in art, as her daughters (minor painters themselves) wish, nor to help the Doge, who has been a good patron to artists but has a tenuous hold on power, nor to give herself glory or even to save herself when it becomes clear that her decisions have angered the powerful. One is reminded more than once, as she is excoriated for putting war’s brutal face on display, undisguised, of the circumstances of our own war – the visceral power of the photos from Abu Ghraib, the government’s ban on photos of coffins – and so of the continuing importance, and paucity, of people with Galactia’s conviction and determination. We have our lapdog media, Venice had plenty of painters like Galactia’s married lover Carpeta, who Mick O’Brien makes an appropriately spineless, and minor in every sense of the word, religious painter.

But for all the ire Galactia provokes in those around her and those who find her painting offensive, and for all the indications that the story is headed toward a typical, theatrical bad ending for the truth-teller, Barker doesn’t let them, or us, off that easily. Much as Galactia prides herself on poking the powerful in the eyes and would love to be a martyr for her art, the haunting black nights she spends in a dank prison cell, where McGhee shows her becoming more unhinged by the moment, make her see her work and purpose differently, much as the Doge is helped by Rivera to understand the value of Galactia’s painting and even independent-minded art in general. Consequently, he relents, and Galactia, in the play’s final minutes, performed very movingly by the cast here, witnesses the full effect her work has on viewers, and seeing it change them visibly changes her.

Neil Becker’s set is austere – though Joe Novak’s dramatic lighting adds a lot to build up the space – and Barker didn’t intend for the audience to see a real painting being produced onstage, but over the course of the scenes here, one can almost feel the images Galactia is setting to canvas burned into the blank air as she goes. Barker’s meditations on art and freedom in this play, which is thought provoking on many levels, take on new life in this wrenching production. The questions the actors bring to life in the made-up words of fictional Venetians resonate deeply in 2007 and are sure to stay with you well after you leave the theatre. – Mallory Jensen

Scenes from an Execution runs through June 10 at the Hudson Guild Theatre, 441 West 26th St., NYC.

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Ms. Jensen is a writer in New York who works in book publishing when she is not attending an indie play/film/concert.

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