Congress defunds, the NEA defends, and the culture wars drag on. Last month, Arena Stage and the Shakespeare Theater obliquely made the establishment case for arts subsidies, serving up social criticism by Shaw and Sheridan in productions as elegant as they were eloquent. Now the city’s scrappier stages are weighing in with more muscular arguments. In a ferocious mounting of Scenes From an Execution, a scintillating intellectual drama set in 16th-century Venice by Brit playwright Howard Barker, Potomac Theater Project tackles the subsidy issue directly, while Signature Theater pushes the envelope of stage sexuality in Brad Fraser’s racy contemporary melodrama Poor Super Man.

Both productions center on painters, and both sport lobby signs warning patrons about the shock value of what they’re about to see. At Signature, what’s considered alarming is explicit language, nudity, and simulated sex; at PTP, where all those things are present in smaller doses, what’s infinitely more scary is the temporary absence of light (in both the metaphorical and literal senses). At a matinee last weekend in the Olney Scene Shop, where the PTP has taken up winter residence, a patron suffered a panic attack and had to be escorted from the auditorium after the PTP audience was figuratively plunged into a dungeon with the evening’s heroine. In a play explicitly about the power of art, that counts as a testament of sorts. Those who stayed were scarcely less rattled by the dark journey of the soul Barker and PTP so viscerally realize.

The story concerns a sensualist painter named Galactia (Naomi Jacobson) who, in 1571, receives what her lover, the less talented artist Carpeta (Jon Krupp), calls a “staggering commission from the state.” She is to paint for the public square a huge representation of a recent military battle—thousands of square feet of canvas that she pledges to fill “in such a way that anyone who looks at it will feel he is there and wince in case an arrow should fly out and catch him in the eye.” The doge of Venice (Alexander Draper) assumes the painting will “celebrate, celebrate, celebrate” his government’s glorious victory, but Galactia has other plans. She’s depicting the battle as “a great waterfall of flesh,” a monument to war that is as anguished as it is magnificent. Every time the doge makes demands about the size and placement of figures (especially that of his admiral brother) or tries to dictate tone, the painting only becomes more horrific. As it becomes clear that the government will be embarrassed, the doge debates alternatives (including the hiring of Carpeta 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 Barker were dealing in black-and-white juxtapositions—boorish bureaucrats vs. sensitive artists or even poverty vs. subsidies—the play wouldn’t pack much punch, but his imagination is more agile and his palette more varied than that. His characters are prickly and complex enough that they won’t fit neatly into pigeonholes. Nor will their arguments. Listen carefully as the petulantly principled heroine battles a doge who has, whatever his political compromises, fostered a climate favorable to the arts, and you’ll hear their rhetoric turning in on itself, refusing to mean what they want it to mean. Soon the artist is demanding punishment, the government seeks to hang her painting, and “protecting” the art has become synonymous with vitiating it. By the time the play reaches its supremely ambiguous conclusion with all sides sticking to principles, claiming the moral high ground, and confident that history will vindicate them, it’s hard not to reel from the heady interplay of diction and contradiction.

Barker’s way with language has struck me as exhilarating but a trifle chilly in his sex-and-armaments plays, The Castle and A Hard Heart (both produced by PTP in Georgetown). But when he’s writing about the discipline and anarchy of art, there’s not a poet working in the English-speaking theater who can touch him. As in No End of Blame—the blistering exploration of censorship that introduced the company to D.C. audiences in 1987—the intellectual fierceness in Scenes stems from real passion. A British friend—who is more familiar with the reception accorded Barker’s work in London than I am—suggests that this play, which was originally a radio drama, can be read as an intimately autobiographical metaphor, with Galactia/Barker as a once-outré artist whose genius for inflaming the public gets tamed by too much adulation. While I can’t vouch for that interpretation, I can affirm that the dramatist is writing with more than his usual ferocity, which is saying rather a lot.

Richard Romagnoli, who has directed all PTP’s productions of Barker’s plays, is now so attuned to the playwright’s nuances that even his most brazen staging notions seem natural extensions of the script. The director and PTP have been itching to do Scenes on stage practically since it was published following its 1984 debut on BBC Radio 3. Until now, the company had only been permitted to perform one scene (as part of its political revue “1992: Are We Having Fun Yet?”) because after a stage version of Scenes premiered in 1990 at London’s Almeida Theater, Barker’s reps spied commercial potential and decided to hold out for Broadway. For a time, it seemed Glenda Jackson would play the lead in New York as she had in London, but in one of those delicious ironies that dog Barker’s work, Jackson was unexpectedly co-opted by government when she won a seat in Parliament.

The show was then licensed to Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum, which has a record of transferring such offbeat work as Children of a Lesser God to Broadway. Juliette Stevenson, whose film Truly Madly Deeply was just then placing her on the cusp of American stardom, was cast as the artist, and everything looked promising until rehearsals, when it became clear the director didn’t have a real handle on the script. The production never caught on with Angelenos, the Manhattan transfer became moot, and PTP finally acquired the rights last year. The current production is only the second in the U.S., though with the upcoming battle over the NEA, there’s not a nonprofit theater in the country where Scenes wouldn’t be singularly appropriate.

Daniel MacLean Wagner’s lighting transforms Olney’s Scene Shop from the post-apocalyptic New York City required for Marisol (with which Scenes plays in repertory) into the 16th-century barracks Galactia uses as a studio, while Lin Waters’ elegantly subdued costumes use texture the way most costuming uses color to delineate character.

All of which supports some of the most expert performances area audiences are likely to see this year. Jacobson’s impassioned Galactia is positively feral as she scratches away in her sketchbook, growls denunciations of her accusers, and passionately defends her art, but she also conveys the sophisticated mind and calculating sexuality that have allowed her to survive in a world where women artists are viewed as dilettantes. (The inspiration for the character is Artemisia Gentileschi, a sadly neglected 17th-century disciple of Caravaggio.) With hair slicked back and diction so precise it can be wielded as a weapon, Draper is an ideal foil for her, playing the doge as Gary Oldman on amphetamines, his crisp politician’s solicitude forever on the verge of exploding into rage. Krupp’s Carpeta is callowness personified, whether he’s husbanding his dignity after Galactia strips him naked in front of a visitor, or clutching his stomach in anguish at his own failings as an artist. Alan Wade’s comic timing lends a Shavian touch to his portrayal of an inquisitorial cardinal, and he’s no less effective as a pathetic war veteran whose thought processes are so labored they cause the arrow protruding from his skull to twitch. And as a critic who cripples art by defending it, Mary Ellen Nester is sublimely conflicted. Sure supporting performances are turned in by Carrie Baker andEdelen McWilliams as Galactia’s disparate daughters.

One and all seem so consumed by art that after a time, it’s hard not to join them. By evening’s end, Galactia’s masterpiece seems to have taken shape in thin air, the mixture of admiration, despair, and loathing in their gazes making its horrors more visible than if it were composed of paint and canvas. The artist speaks at one point of needing to invent new reds to depict the carnage, and in a sense, that’s exactly what Barker and PTP have done. They’ve let you see the damn thing bleed.

Poor Super Man premiered amid controversy last April in Cincinnati, where the city fathers like to mention shutting down porno bookstores and shutting down Mapplethorpe exhibits in the same breath. The city’s vice squad went undercover at a preview performance of Brad Fraser’s provocative soap opera, but was unable to solicit audience outrage at the explicit language, frontal nudity, and simulated oral and anal sex on display. The show went on. So did Cincinnati.

No doubt Arlington will survive Signature’s smartly acted, crotch-massaging version—especially with all the PR-savvy warnings the company’s put in its advertising, and the ban it’s imposed on patrons under 18. Even adventuresome theatergoers may be surprised at the amount of sexual content in the play’s chronicle of a gay Canadian artist named David (Michael Kramer) who tries to jump-start his flagging career by redonning the waiter’s uniform that saw him through leaner times. He finds his muse in Matt (Jim Whalen) the married, ostensibly straight restaurant owner who hires him. David is conflicted and manipulative, Matt conflicted and naive, and soon the two are snorting coke, groping, screwing, and slugging each other, and generally wrecking the lives of everyone they care about. In David’s case, that means the surly middle-age journalist named Kryla (Marcia Gardner) who is forever barging into his studio uninvited, and the sweet HIV-positive transsexual named Shannon (Daniel Luna) with whom he shares confidences and the spare room in his apartment; in Matt’s it means his wife Violet (Hana Kline) who seems to be the only other person he knows.

As in Fraser’s gay-themed murder mystery, Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love, the dialogue is clever almost to a fault, and the action brisk and steamy. You can’t accuse the evening of adding up to much, but as it transforms the first act’s often screamingly bitchy comedy into the second’s sad round of betrayals, it develops tension and actually manages to be quite affecting in the last half-hour. The casting has much to do with that. Kramer makes David’s manipulative machinations seem almost charming; Luna’s delicate turn in drag both rings true emotionally and gives the show a conscience; and Whalen’s Matt is far more appealing than he has any right to be. You can’t help feeling the character’s a two-dimensional, self-centered dolt, but Whalen fills him in with pain and palpable longing. By comparison, the women have thankless roles, but Kline assays the wife’s confusion and rage forthrightly. And if Gardner overdoes the journalist’s wrist-flicking poses, it’s hard to know what else to do with a character who sounds one whiny note all evening.

Fraser’s scripts feel like movies to me, an impression that’s heightened here through projections and multimedia design by Bob Quinn and Ellen West, and by the lickety-split staging of Dorothy Neumann and Eric D. Schaeffer. Some of their choices are curious. The production design makes next to nothing of the DC Comics superhero on whose name the play’s title is a sort of joke, and whose exploits are treated by the characters as if they were the stuff of serious symbolism. As a result, those passages in the script play like dead weight. And the projection of surtitles on the rippled aluminum slabs from which Lou Stancari has constructed his expressionist setting is so arbitrary—sometimes undercutting the dialogue, sometimes reinforcing it, and other times just providing punch lines—that after a while it seems more haphazard than illuminating.

Still, it would be hard to deny that the evening works as melodrama—sort of a gayer, racier, Canadian version of Melrose Place. Its theatrical rawness gives it an edge, its acting lends it immediacy, and then, of course, there’s all that skin and simulated sex. To their credit, the performers let it all hang out emotionally, as well as physically.