Second chances don’t come often in the theater, as patrons for Carol Channing’s dreary remounting of Hello, Dolly! recently discovered. Movies you can always catch up with on video, but miss a stage show in its first flush of exuberance, and the moment is irretrievable. Nostalgia sweetens memories enough that even capable subsequent productions tend to be dimmed by comparison.
Well, not this week. Potomac Theater Project (PTP) has resurrected Scenes From an Execution, Howard Barker’s ferocious, sex-charged, intellectual drama aboutof all thingsthe perils of governmental arts subsidies, in a riveting production that’s headed for Manhattan next month. And Studio Theater has honed August Wilson’s Two Trains Running, which was scattered and diffuse at the Kennedy Center four years ago, into a rip-roaring slice-of-life drama. Both shows are stronger than they were when patrons flocked to them initially, and in PTP’s case, where the original was pretty damn scintillating, that’s saying quite a lot.
Barker’s story concerns a sensualist painter named Galactia (Naomi Jacobson), who, in 1571, receives a “staggering commission” from the state. She is to paint for the public square a huge representation of a recent military battlethousands of square feet of canvas that the doge of Venice (Alex Draper) naturally assumes will “celebrate, celebrate, celebrate” his government’s glorious victory.
Galactia has other plans. She chooses to depict the battle as “a great waterfall of flesh”a monument to war that’s as anguished as it is magnificent, and her response to the doge’s every demand about the painting’s tone, or the size and placement of figures (especially that of his admiral brother), is to increase the horror quotient exponentially. As it becomes clear that the government will be embarrassed, the doge hires Galactia’s lover Carpeta (Greg Naughton) to do a second painting, the Church weighs in with moral questions, and well-meaning critics enter the fray as apologists for all sides, with results that are anything but predictable.
If you’re expecting black-and-white argumentsboorish bureaucrats vs. sensitive artistsrest assured the playwright’s palette is more varied than that. Barker is among the more poetically inspired voices of Britain’s theatrical left, and isn’t much interested in uncomplicated confrontations. His prickly heroine is battling a doge who, whatever his political compromises, has genuinely fostered a climate favorable to the arts, so each of them can reasonably claim the moral high ground. Nor do their strategies play out quite the way one might expect. By the time Galactia is demanding punishment, while the government is seeking to hang her painting in a museum, any notion patrons may have brought with them about “protecting” art and artists has been neatly turned on its head.
Most of PTP’s superb cast has returned for this production, which plays just two more weeks at Olney Theater before heading to New York. Originally performed three-quarters-in-the-round in the scene shop next door, the play has been installed behind the Olney’s proscenium in such a way that an audience of about 70 now shares the stage with the actors. The resulting intimacy greatly enhances the feral nature of Jacobson’s Galactia, making her growled insults, furious sketchbook-scratching, and sexual aggression explosively immediate. Her lovemaking scenes with Naughton’s desperately insecure Carpeta are painfully real, at once passionate and hurtful, sexy and filled with contempt.
I’d not have thought Draper could improve on his waspish, acerbic doge, but the performance is crisper and more diabolically clever than ever. Portraying a politician of diction and contradiction, the actor clips consonants as if they were rose bushes, meticulously crossing every “t” before burning it behind him. Alan Wade is both deliciously smarmy as an inquisitorial cardinal and amusingly pathetic as a war veteran for whom thinking is so laborious it makes an arrow embedded in his brain twitch visibly. Also adept are Donna Jean Fogel as Galactia’s alienated daughter, James Slaughter as the doge’s imperious brother, and Francesca Di Mauro as a critic who can’t help crippling art as she defends it.
The play’s feminist currents have deepened since last year’s production, with director Richard Romagnoli subtly giving more weight to the sorts of concerns that fueled his PTP stagings of Barker’s The Castle and A Hard Heart. And of course, the rancorous debate over federal funding of practically anything besides the military lends the play continued relevance. Written for radio in 1985, Scenes From an Execution was Barker’s response to the Tory government’s reduction of arts subsidies, but because he gave the evening historical distance (the inspiration for the main character is Artemisia Gentileschi, a neglected 17th-century disciple of Caravaggio) it applies equally well to U.S. arts battles a decade later.
All the more surprising, then, that the play hasn’t had more currency in this country. Apart from PTP’s productions and one earlier mounting at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, Scenes hasn’t been produced here professionally (though Arena Stage has reportedly been interested in it as a vehicle for director Liviu Ciulei). If theaters wait long enough, the play’s concerns may be moot, since state funding for culture appears to be going the way of the dodo.
Still, it could be argued that that fact provides a sense of urgency as PTP’s actors conjure the majesty of Galactia’s masterpiece out of thinnest air, rendering its horrors not via paint and canvas but through the despair of their awestruck gazes. That PTP’s work is free to the publicwith costs subsidized solely by donationsalso serves rather eloquently to make the playwright’s point.
I remember wondering four years ago why August Wilson would spend the first half of Two Trains Runningthe drama he’s set in a black-owned and patronized Pittsburgh dinerassembling volatile materials, and the second half refusing to detonate an explosion. Studio Theater’s production suggests an answer of sorts by turning the evening into a giddy display of verbal fireworks.
By early in the play’s second act, Wilson has placed in close proximity an ex-con with a history of violence, a 5-gallon can of gasoline, and a loaded revolver. Also on the premises are the restaurant’s proprietor, who’s feuding with an urban-renewal-obsessed city hall; a neighbor-gouging funeral director who’s allegedly so miserly he re-uses caskets; and a waitress who has mutilated her legs with razors so men won’t ogle her. Outside are a crazed street person who keeps bellowing, “I want my ham,” at a Jewish grocer who wronged him a decade earlier, and an Italian gambling capo who has “cut” the day’s number, meaning that winnersthe violence-prone ex-con among themwill receive only half the normal return. Did I mention the Malcolm X rally? Clearly, the raw stuff of conflict is present.
Wilson hasn’t really made dramatic use of it, but Studio’s director, Thomas W. Jones II, whips up such a froth of activity that patrons may not notice much. Where Broadway’s version felt static, as if its diner was second cousin to the desolate one in Petrified Forest, Studio’s is warm, inviting, and teeming with life. Daniel Conway has designed its lunch counter with such attention to detail that you half-expect to be served fried chicken and coffee at intermission. And the performances are as natural and assured as Wilson’s dialogue. Lester Purry’s ex-con is an appealing smoothie around whom an aura of danger hovers. He has the evening’s most difficult role as an outsider who, for plot purposes, must remain a bit undefined and, to his credit, makes the character seem unknown rather than unknowable.
The others are all instantly familiar. Michael W. Howell’s deeply resonant voice lends authority to the diner proprietor’s proclamations about not being beaten by city hall. Kenneth W. Daugherty’s funeral director is amusingly oily, Rebecca Rice’s damaged waitress possesses just the right blend of fire and enigmatic longing, and Donald Griffin is all salt-o’-the-earthiness as a patron who won’t get involved.
As a flashy numbers-runner, Elliott Hill has been outfitted (in a neat bit of character assassination by costumer Reggie Ray) in a series of stridently gaudy suits with matching shoes, and is colorful enough to live up to them. And James Brown-Orleans is convincing enough as the wild-eyed street guy who so volubly wants his ham that he might simply have wandered in from 14th Street.
Collectively, their labors give an enormous amount of vitality to a story that isn’t really going anywhere. In the end, the gasoline ends up powering a Cadillac; the gun stays pocketed; the grocer and the capo are barely challenged, and the waitress falls for the ex-con. Still, the evening is warm enough that none of this seems at all disappointing or ordinary…not even that last uncharacteristic (for Wilson) romantic touch. You get the impression that after the waitress finds some slacks to cover the gashes on her calves, all will be well with the world. CP