With precious little to applaud on local stages lately, Fifth Floor Productions (in association with the Eureka Theater) has managed to interrupt the summer doldrums. Anticipation of the company's vigorous, in-your-face performance style combined with a powerful script by British writer Howard Barker creates, in Scenes From an Execution, an effect similar to that of plunging into bracing surf. It's disappointing that the exercise ultimately numbs rather than refreshes, but I can't say I regret the plunge.
Fifth Floor has always made a splash, so to speak, with its highly physical, site-specific work. Its deservedly praised production of Orestes, for instance, not only turned a well-known story on its ear, it also upended the conventions of theater. As a company they are interested in the question of perspective, in how shifting a point of view can shift the reality of what one sees. So this play -- which explores, among other things, the Renaissance art world, its discovery of perspective, and the then-revolutionary idea of drawing figures from life -- would seem a perfect fit.
Scenes From an Execution is a fictional investigation of the life and career of early 17th-century Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi, famous for her epic-scale depictions of women wreaking vengeance. It grapples with issues aplenty: feminism, pacifism, sexuality, gender identification, hard work vs. inspiration in art, the role of criticism in art, the role of politics in art. It also grapples with the way art was fundamentally changed by the discovery of perspective, which allowed humankind to replace God as the dominant eye in the universe, how seeing things from a specific point of view amplifies the power of the image and the experience of the viewer.
Directed by Kenn Watt and designed by Sandra Woodall (sets and costumes), Kate Boyd (lighting), and Michael Woody (sound), with projections by Woodall and Ed Gaible (who also produced), this Scenes is a feast for the senses as well as the intellect. Everything is engineered to rouse the audience, to keep us alert, awake, and mindful.
The choice of the as-yet-unrenovated Brava Theater Center goes directly to the heart of what is right and what is wrong with the production. The building (a work in progress, as I've noted before) carries the mystique associated with an artist's studio. Unfortunately, its problematic acoustics seem to devour the action rather than set it off.
Still, there's a marvelous sense of anticipation associated with this gutsy renovation project which is used to great effect by Fifth Floor: Upon entering the theater, the audience is told they'll have to change seats for the second act. This announcement puts us off-center and creates the subtle expectation that this production and this experience will be more powerful than our preconceptions.
In the auditorium itself, stripped down and lined with scaffolding, an arresting sight fuels this impression: a naked man lies face down (asleep? dead?), his prominently displayed buttocks elevated. Overseeing both stage and audience from a lofty booth is a military-looking man in sunglasses. Barely visible in the underlit playing area, on a bleacher covered in worn carpeting, is a woman with a sketch pad, drawing the upended man. She will turn out to be the Gentileschi character, Galactia (Patricia Silver), an artist known for her sensualist ways.
But when the lights dim and the Fifth Floor company encounters Barker's play, the effects of relying too heavily on visually shocking gimmicks begin to take their toll. Under Watt's swiftly paced direction, the production seems hellbent on pursuing the play as innovation at the expense of its deeply powerful humanity.
The story is compelling and provocative. Galactia is given a virtually unprecedented (for a woman) commission to paint a mural of the Battle of Lepanto, a naval clash fought in 1571 between Greece and the Ottoman Empire that effectively eliminated the Ottomans as a sea power in the Mediterranean. Galactia finds herself at odds with the Venetian doge, Urgentino (Jordan Winer). She is committed to exposing the true nature of war as nothing but body parts, blood, and horror. The doge wants Venice and the victory at Lepanto to be glorified.
A side complication is Galactia's turbulent affair with Carpeta (Patrick Costigan), Barker's fictionalization of the painter Caravaggio. Galactia appears driven by passion for art, for her lover, for pleasure, and for what we would call her feminist principles. But in Barker's multilayered rendering, Galactia's true appetite is for defiance, rage, and fury. Her moments of glory involve taking a solitary stance against whatever convention is in effect. Even as she persuades Prodo (John Polak), a veteran of the battle who makes a living displaying his horrific wounds, including a visible crossbow bolt lodged in his brain, to think of her as a painter and not a woman, her real appetite is for the story of what happened. She revels in the use of maternal compassion to manipulate him into telling it, no matter the cost to him.
Galactia glories in her own self-contradictions: Even as she maligns and provokes Carpeta, she is obsessed with getting him to leave his wife. She has taught two of her daughters (Raquel Cion and Nina Gold) to paint, but refuses them affection. She rails against the establishment as represented by the doge, his admiral brother (John Flanagan), and the Catholic cardinal (Flanagan again), in the (correct) certainty that they will prevent her wildly controversial canvas from being displayed. When that decision is reversed and the painting acknowledged as a masterpiece, her disappointment at being deprived of a battle and of enemies ruins her.
It's all very provocative and mostly exciting. But what's missing is humanity and genuine sexuality. There's cleverness everywhere: A screen and video camera supply an instant second angle on the second-act proceedings. Scenes came into being as a radio play; necessary expository narration, supplied originally as notes from Galactia's sketchbook, have metamorphosed into a slinky black-sheathed character called Sketchbook (Sommer Ulrickson). One of Watt's intriguing choices is to have Galactia interact with Sketchbook as if they were lovers, which, in effect, they are.
As Galactia Silver is more shrill than seductive, more pedantic than iconoclastic. She seems overwhelmed by the ideas her character continually reels off, and she fails to provide the sort of fire Barker clearly wants for his heroine. Her scenes with Costigan as Carpeta show us an indifferent Galactia, not a woman at the height of her sexuality. Her scenes with the doge should crackle with erotic provocation; here they are simply a way of forwarding the story.
As Galactia's lover, Costigan seems more a victim of ill use (it is his bare bottom she is sketching at curtain's rise) than a man in love. His complaints border on whining and his manner is sulky. Perhaps it's the actor's frustration at the lack of chemistry between himself and his leading lady.
Winer's Doge Urgentino makes the most powerful and lasting impression, with his Hollywood deal-maker manner. He so outweighs Galactia as an opponent that the contest is over before it begins, and all Watt and the rest of the company can do is try to distract us with their inventiveness. That they come so close to success makes the eventual lack of success -- it's not really failure -- all the more disappointing.
Scenes From an Execution runs through Sept. 15.