Scenes from an Execution: Theater review by Adam Feldman
The formidable Jan Maxwell has said that Scenes from an Execution will be her final stage performance, which would be reason enough to see PTP/NYC’s revival of Howard Barker’s thorny 1990 drama. Maxwell stars as Galactia, a brilliant and difficult painter in 16th-century Venice who is commissioned by the Doge (Alex Draper) to depict the city’s defeat of the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto. Instead of an inspiring tribute, however, she paints a scene of breathtaking violence, stubbornly painting truth to power—or so she believes. (Her truth is drawn from imagination, not witness, and her art has power of its own.)
Barker’s canvas is wide enough to include evocative portraits of side characters: Galactia’s younger and less-talented lover (David Barlow), an unctuous cardinal (Steven Dykes), a politically savvy critic (Pamela J. Gray). But the play belongs to Maxwell, who commands it with savage intelligence. Idealistic and driven, arrogant and vainglorious, Galactia is a magnificent creation, and Maxwell acts the role to a fare-thee-well.—Adam Feldman
Atlantic Stage 2 (Off Broadway). By Howard Barker. Directed by Richard Romagnoli. With Jan Maxwell, Alex Draper, David Barlow. Running time: 2hrs 15mins. One intermission.
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Judith and Vinegar Tom: Review by Helen Shaw
Until you have been to Atlantic Stage 2, it is difficult to describe just how bizarrely deep the venue feels. A lone elevator in the lobby takes you into the bowels of the building, and if you've ever once made the mistake of taking the stairs, you know the Atlantic's miners must have been trying to tunnel through the entire tectonic plate. This does, though, offer a wonderful little encapsulation (literally) for an audience leaving a play—your emotions coalesce around you in the elevator car as you come back up through the strata and out into the night. After the double bill of Howard Barker's Judith: A Parting from the Body and Caryl Churchill's Vinegar Tom, I found myself deeply suspicious of my fellow riders. Which one was a monster? Which one would call me a witch? PTP/NYC's summer programming does a champion job of stirring up a miasma of paranoia and bleak reassessment of your fellow man. In fact, trapped in that elevator, I found myself inching closer to the women—and letting those damn men alone.
Barker's venomous one-act play retells the story of Jewish heroine Judith (Pamela J. Gray) and the Assyrian general Holofernes (Alex Draper)—a tale so well known that we expect head chopping all through the chitchat about love and death. The play's condensed quality means the pair must immediately launch into the playwright's trademark supersaturated language, which tends to conflate sex and the death instinct. (“Pity is passion—the rest is just clamor,” says Holofernes, a statement that manages to be both poetic and unhelpful.) Less expected, and thus more delightful, is the tart wisdom of Judith's servant and pander (Patricia Buckley), who comes across like Patti LuPone after a long meditation retreat. She's trying to be patient with Judith's power-drunk nonsense (shouldn't they be smuggling the head out already?), but she's just…so…unimpressed. Barker is best in larger doses, when you can sink into his truffle-rich complexities; in this amuse-bouche-size portion, the language can shade from the gorgeous into the merely pretentious. Luckily, he keeps puncturing his own creation with the servant's droll commentary, and Buckley's needle-sharp wit punches enough holes in the play to let plenty of air and light in.
The real draw, though, is the chance to see Churchill's Vinegar Tom, a piece with all the astringency of its title. A bleak comedy supposedly about the 17th century, the play shows us the many ways a community comes up with to accuse a woman of witchcraft. Does she use herbs? Witch. Is she against an advantageous marriage? Witch. The depth of Churchill's research is surpassed only by the depth of her anger—righteous, black, galvanizing anger. The piece even ends with a charming vaudeville presentation of a real 15th-century witch-hunting text, which connects the burning dots of church and state misogyny. Much of director Cheryl Faraone's casting here is beautifully done, including superb Steven Dykes in various odious male roles, Tara Giordano as a woman whose healthy lusts endanger her and Kathleen Wise as a neighbor who starts seeing black magic in simple misfortunes. Churchill does throw a stylistic wrench in the works, though, with a modern-day singing trio who warble about menopause and body image, and here Faraone's direction seems rather less deft.
PTP/NYC's summer season, with its dedication to weighty, language-centered work, can be a welcome change from our customary downtown fare—it’s like biting into thick steak after months of meticulously prepared sorbet. Yet bloody and rich though it is, you should know that the work sometimes savors of the college cafeteria. The group's relationship with Middlebury College in Vermont means that productions incorporate undergraduate actors of varying capacities and, most worryingly, the company seems wedded to a college-theater aesthetic. To truly love this Judith and Vinegar Tom, you will need to close your eyes to the occasional amateurish design element. Thank goodness that PTP has chosen texts that make you wipe away sweat, even tears. Vinegar Tom, in particular, blows like a strong wind; any flaws certainly seem less noticeable when you've got centuries of woman-hatred gusting at you right in the goddess-damned face.—Helen Shaw
Atlantic Stage 2 (Off Broadway). By Howard Barker and Caryl Churchill. Directed by Richard Romagnoli and Cheryl Faraone. With ensemble casts. Running time: 2hrs 30mins. One intermission.