While you come to see Howard Barker’s play, what you really come to see is Jan Maxwell’s final performances on a New York City theater stage. Having recently announced her plans to retire, Maxwell will be remembered as an actress who maximized every potential moment she had on stage. Her indomitable force matches that of her character, the protagonist painter Anna Galactia. Only in New York City will you be able to watch as Maxwell plunges herself and the audience into sixteenth century Venice and the sordid life of Anna Galactia.
Maxwell tackled this role back in July 2008 with the Potomac Theater Project, which scored her a Drama Desk Award nomination for Outstanding Actress in a Play. It makes sense that she would play the unrelenting, uncompromising, and swelling painter caught in a world where women are judged by their sensuality and beauty, rather than their talent and art.
Everyone in Venice agrees: Galactia is a genius. Yes, she may be a sensualist who is having a torrid affair with the married and less talented painter Carpeta (David Barlow), and yes, she may swing wildly from jubilance to insufferable narcissism – but she is a genius. The play asks, is genius enough? Is genius and talent enough to forgive the artist and their art? Even when she has been commissioned to paint the commemoration of the Battle of Lepanto, she cannot do as they ask. She pretends to for a little while, but everyone around her quickly realizes she is not falling in line. Instead, she wants to paint the truth of the battle – suffering soldiers, falling flesh, and an indifferent admiral.
Trying to talk about art is like trying to wrap your arms around an octopus; the octopus has too many arms and you have too few. Many plays try to deal with the idea of the artist, the role of art in life, the consequences of art, the duty of the artist, artistic integrity in the face of patronage, and so on. Scenes From An Execution is one of the few plays that weaves the many questions about art into one coherent and compelling play, without feeling pedantic and high winded. Through Galatica, Barker embarks on a nonstop quest to grapple with difficult questions both for himself and the audience.
Scenes From An Execution was originally written in 1985 by Howard Barker as a radio play and later adapted for the stage. It is often considered Barker’s most popular play, which has also made it his least favorite due to its popularity. Regardless of the writer’s own personal feelings towards his work, the play is energetic, critical, and often hysterically funny. Director Richard Romagnoli, who also directed the 2008 production of Scenes From An Execution with Maxwell, balances the severity and seriousness of the discussions of art with a playful humor that avoids watering down the mood.
While Galactia has everything to prove in Venice, Jan Maxwell certainly will finish with nothing left to prove here in New York City.
Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street, New York, USA +1 866 811 4111
Play by Howard Barker; directed by Richard Romagnoli; sets by Hallie Zieselman; costumes by Jule Emerson and Mira Veikley; lighting by Mark Evancho; sound by Cormac Bluestone; production manager, Ms. Zieselman; production stage manager, Eric Marlin. Presented by PTP/NYC (Potomac Theater Project), Cheryl Faraone, Jim Petosa and Mr. Romagnoli, co-artistic directors.
WITH: Meghan Leathers (the Sketchbook/Nun), Jan Maxwell (Galactia), David Barlow (Carpeta), Steven Dykes (Prodo/Ostensible), Alex Draper (Urgentino), Lana Meyer (Supporta), Melissa MacDonald (Dementia), Nicholas Hemerling, Kean Haunt and Jonathan Tindle (Workmen/Sailors), Adam Ludwig (the Turk/Sordo/Pastaccio/Man in the Next Cell), Bill Army (Suffici), Pamela J. Gray (Rivera) and Mr. Tindle (Official/Gaoler/Lasagna/Man From the Piave).