Jan Maxwell and David Barlow
in Scenes From an Execution
(© Stan Barouh)
Jan Maxwell and David Barlow
in Scenes From an Execution
(© Stan Barouh)
The title of Howard Barker's Scenes From an Execution, now being presented by the Potomac Theatre Project at Atlantic Stage 2, may lead you to think its subject matter is fairly grim. However, while the playwright has serious matters on his mind, the tone is often light and humorous. And if Richard Romagno's revival doesn't always achieve the right balance between its grave and comic elements, it nevertheless features an exemplary performance from Jan Maxwell as Galactia, a Renaissance-era artist who is commissioned to paint "The Battle of Lepanto," a famous naval victory that the Venetian government wants to be memorialized.

The events depicted within the play are fictional, although Barker was loosely inspired by the Roman artist Artemisia Gentileschi in his creation of Galactia. Barker's play is designed as a farcical allegory of art versus the state, with plenty of humor to break up the more pedantic moments in the text. And yet, the playwright manages to refrain from making the play overly simplistic.

Galactia's benefactors -- including the doge Urgentino (Alex Draper) and Cardinal Ostensible (Timothy Deenihan) -- expect a glorious and celebratory painting. But she is more interested in showing the human suffering and butchery of war. Her motives are not merely an anti-war protest; she has a self-destructive streak combined with a fierce pride and even arrogance, and is also playful, conceited, and sometimes cruel. Maxwell captures all of these complexities in her compelling and nuanced performance.

Unfortunately, the remainder of the ensemble is rather uneven. Deenihan has a strong presence, but isn't able to give much dimension to his role. Robert Zukerman does a fine job in his initial scene as the admiral Suffici, bantering lightly but pointedly with Galactia. However, his later appearance -- when he sees the painting and the way he's depicted within it -- is a little overwrought. Similarly, David Barlow as Galactia's younger lover Carpeta, is exaggerated to the point of caricature.

The names that the playwright gives his characters sometimes align with their actions, and sometimes do not. For example, Carpeta is a weak-willed man that is very much like a carpet that Galactia walks over. On the other hand, Galactia's artist-daughter Supporta (Lucy Faust) is not all that supportive, severing her professional relationship to her mother because she does not want to be associated with Galactia's controversial painting.

Some of the comic elements within the script feel far too forced, such as a scene set in a church that should be more disturbing than it is. Even Maxwell is sometimes affected by this imbalance, but she is still the strongest element within this worthwhile production.