Directed by Richard Romagnoli
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“I am not meant to be understood. Don’t you see? Oh, you miserable, well-meaning, always-on-the-right-side, desperate little intellect! Death to be understood. Awful death…” (Galactia to Rivera, Scene Nineteen)
The best learning results from the learner grappling with an authentic situation, with rich dense text, and with self and others. This process translates to the development and appreciation of the best in theatre where audiences ideally are given the opportunity to grapple with the performance, the characters, their authentic conflicts, and the stories these conflicts create. Approaching theatre in this fashion is risky and can easily “ruin our peace with life” (Prodo, Scene One).
In “Scenes From An Execution,” Venetian artist Galactia (Jan Maxwell) is commissioned to paint “The Battle of Lepanto” on “one thousand square feet of canvas.” This tale is loosely inspired by the 16th century Florentine Caravagesque Artemisia Genteleschi and is all about grappling and the welcomed demise of “being understood.” Too often theatregoers believe they need to understand what unravels on stage and unwittingly strive to be – in Galactia’s words – “always-on-the-right-side, desperate little intellects!” Audience members applaud, stand, chuckle, and weep when someone else does just to assure themselves (and those others) they did “get it.”
On the surface, Galactia is grappling with the State of Venice and its dogged alpha male understanding of battles and victory. Urgentino the Doge of Venice (Alex Draper) and Cardinal Ostensible the Secretary of State for Public Education (Steven Dykes) have high expectations of the famous realist painter Galactia but these expectations begin to crumble when the Doge drops in to monitor the painter’s progress. Galactia’s understanding of victory in battle is far different than the State’s understanding. “A battle is a slaughter,” she tells the Cardinal. And she tells her daughters, “So with one figure I transformed the enemy from beast to victim, and made victory unclean.”
The divide between artist and state widens and (no surprise, not even to Galactia), the artist is taken off the project and imprisoned for “denying the virtue of the actions of the State of Venice.” The new commission goes to Galactia’s married lover Carpeta (David Barlow). The conflict here is not as simple as a conflict between artist and state. That conflict has recurred throughout history with two significant examples: Hitler (Degenerate Art) and the impact of Cold War McCarthyism on writers, artists, and actors in the United States. The conflict in “Scenes From An Execution” is more sinister that state vs. artist, more insidious, more seditious. Determining the nature of that conflict is – as it should be – left to the audience to grapple with and, if it chooses not to, to live with the consequences of that dereliction of audience duty.
Jan Maxwell, who in a recent interview, claims her performance in “Scenes From An Execution” signals her retirement from the stage, is a wonder to watch and listen to. She is a brilliant actor who explores every morally ambiguous fiber of her character Galactia and epitomizes the meaning of a generous and gifted actor.
Under Richard Romagnoli’s meticulous direction, the ensemble cast of this remarkably enduring and ever relevant play deliver captivating and riveting performances. Each imbues her or his character with believability and authenticity. Why Mr. Romangnoli leaves Ms. Maxwell in total darkness during two prison scenes is puzzling. Doing so does place the audience in a state of angst similar to the prisoners and places a sharp focus on the text. However, to miss seeing Jan Maxwell exercise her craft is for this reviewer, a deep loss. This is no longer a BBC Radio Play (1984).
The Admiral believes that Galactia is “coarse.” The painter replies, “Coarse for an artist? It’s an artist’s job to be coarse. Preserving coarseness, that’s the problem.” Mr. Barker revels in exploring the mythos of womankind and his retellings of stories about powerful women are replete with delicious moral ambiguity and resounding shadows. Whether Galactia is able ultimately to preserve her coarseness in her post-prison relationship with the Admiral (and the State) is something for the audience to grapple with. Galactia certainly did.