Splendid, spirited actress though she is, Jan Maxwell can’t overcome the fatigue factor in the Art-vs.-Authority arguments advanced by Howard Barker in his 1986 didacto-drama, “Scenes From an Execution,” playing a rep sked in the Potomac Theater Project’s summer fest. But once the bad guys come out to play in the second act, Maxwell has more reason to tear into her meaty role as Galactia, an earthy, free-thinking Renaissance painter who takes on the Venetian power structure over the controversial anti-war message in her commemorative painting of the Battle of Lepanto.
Lepanto was an epic naval battle in which the Venetian forces scored a decisive victory over the Ottoman fleet in 1571. The oily doge of Venice (given his slippery due by Alex Draper) has commissioned Galactia to produce a 1,000-foot canvas to commemorate the event. This heroic painting would not only celebrate the triumph of the Venetian city-state, but exalt the doge’s brother, the fastidious little admiral of the fleet, in Robert Zukerman’s mincing perf.
But Galactia is a stickler for truth, and as Maxwell makes abundantly clear in her ballsy performance, while she respects the power of her political patron, she can’t help herself from deviating from his instructions. Against the advice of both her daughters and even influential art critic Rivera (the imposing and beautifully costumed Patricia Buckley), her battle scene becomes a monstrous vision of the pain, suffering and utter futility of wars for the men who fight them.
And therein lies the conflict. If Galactia persists, she will land in prison for treason. If she panders to her church and state funding sources by betraying her own artistic principles, she will doom herself to another kind of prison.
But watching an artist wrestle with her muse is not as sexy as watching her wrestle with her naked lover, so Barker compromises his own principles just a tad, by setting up a conventional conflict of the flesh between Galactia and Carpeta (David Barlow), a lesser artist of religious drivel and a poor excuse for a lover. And while a more compelling thesp might have given Maxwell better support in these carnal exercises, their scenes play like the dramatic contrivances they are.
No matter what’s going on, Maxwell keeps her head high, but her perf peaks in focus and intensity whenever Galactia is mating with her art work — at which point she becomes a dervish of creative energy, cannibalizing her models and stunning her viewers into weak-kneed awe.
Helming for the Potomac Theater Project, of which he is one of three artistic directors, Richard Romagnoli recovers himself in the play’s second act. Making full use of Mark Evancho’s expressionistic set and Laura Eckelman’s modest, but effectively sinister lighting design, helmer allows Galactia’s political foils more play space to fling their toys around.
Draper’s unctuous doge and the suave Cardinal Ostensible played with humorous self-awareness by Timothy Deenihan love it when Barker goes for their throats. This he does in late-blooming, but powerful scenes in which the playwright’s scorn for the hypocrisy of church and state as patrons of the arts seems to know no bounds. War may be hell, but for real savagery, Barker will always go for political satire.