Scenes From an Execution

European Repertory Company

By Justin Hayford

A huge white curtain is strung across Baird Hall, the semidecrepit makeshift theater in the Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ where European Repertory has holed up for four years. Through the curtain can be seen a half dozen dim spots of light. Two somber men in dark suits stand on catwalks flanking the curtain. Scratchy, barely audible strains of Vivaldi come from somewhere, sounding as though they’ve been piped in from a distant galaxy.

It’s opening night of Scenes From an Execution, director Dale Goulding’s moment of reckoning. His hugely successful, long-running staging of writer-director Steven Berkoff’s Agamemnon has recently closed–a show that, in the estimation of at least one critic in town, proved he could master Berkoff’s aesthetic as a director. How will he fare on his own?

The henchmen above our heads shift position. The silhouette of a woman with her arms outstretched appears on the curtain, swaying languidly, tortuously; she holds what appears to be a conductor’s baton in her left hand (in the Renaissance mind, the hand of the devil). A curious new sound emerges from behind the curtain–a faltering but insistent scraping. The curtains begin to part, moving at a glacial pace, revealing a tower of scaffolding from floor to ceiling. Lashed to the top are six white candles, transforming the workmanlike structure into a kind of sacrificial altar. The formerly silhouetted woman appears, wearing a gown that suggests the Renaissance, lost in a pained reverie, wielding not a baton but a paintbrush. At the rear of the stage a man and a woman stand expressionless, each tearing a charcoal sketch in half as slowly as possible. When they finish–at precisely the same moment–they disappear in a flood of backlighting.

The first 30 seconds of this production of Howard Barker’s 1984 radio play establish an aesthetic rigor that never wanes over the ensuing 90 minutes. Aided by set designer Robert Whitaker, lighting designer Paul Foster, and costume designer Mary Ellen Park, Goulding has come into his own, turning this spare meditation on art and politics in Renaissance Italy into a bare-bones visual feast, a sterling example of the kind of riches to be found in Grotowski’s “poor theater.”

Barker tells the story of Galactia, a fictional Venetian portrait artist who’d like to be taken seriously as a painter of historical subjects. She faces two nearly insurmountable obstacles: she’s a woman in 17th-century Italy, and she insists on creating works that shame the state during an era of state-sponsored art patronage. Urgentino, the Doge of Venice–here costumed as a Mafia don from the 1940s–grants her a commission to paint a sweeping mural commemorating the Battle of Lepanto, Christendom’s self-proclaimed triumph over Islam. But rather than imbue the Italian soldiers with nobility, she depicts war in all its unmistakable brutality. This is no triumph but a slaughter. Refusing to hide her self-described promiscuity (she even gets horny at a funeral), she proclaims herself a realist two centuries before Courbet and finds her career all but destroyed by a state that cannot tolerate the politics behind her acknowledged genius.

Galactia is based on the historical figure of Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the few successful female painters of the Italian Renaissance, perhaps best known for her unflinching depiction of a decapitation in progress, Judith Slaying Holofernes. Influenced by Caravaggio, she created emotionally charged scenes in striking chiaroscuro–a technique Goulding adopts for his production. In a feat that’s particularly impressive given the company’s technical limitations, he composes stage images like a painter arranging a canvas, paying great attention to the play of light and dark. His actors often stand like figures in a fresco, serving the needs of the image rather than the needs of naturalistic theater. During several intimate scenes, performers stand with enormous expanses between them, and the actors rarely take more than a step or two unless entering or exiting.

Goulding has at his disposal a smart cast who understand their relative importance onstage. Unlike most actors, who seem to believe that whenever they’re speaking the play rests entirely on their words, these performers have a clear appreciation for the scenes’ compositions and rarely throw them out of balance. When the cardinal Ostensibile (Tim Kough) makes his first appearance, he walks center stage and steps onto an industrial lift that creeps upward until he finally reaches the upper level of scaffolding. Any other actor in town would probably have insisted on starting his big speech in mid lift, when he had all the focus. But Kough waits, doing nothing during his endless eight-foot elevation. The image of a cardinal draped in red velvet riding an industrial lift while white candles flicker above his head is complete in itself; Kough, like almost everyone else in the cast, understands that a powerful image does the acting for him.

Something similar happens when Galactia, who as played by Carolyn Hoerdemann is unapologetically frank, ends up in prison. She simply kneels beneath the lift’s platform, which thanks to simple overhead lighting casts barlike shadows across her. Though Hoerdemann achieves the emotional volatility needed to convey a sense of betrayal and bewilderment, her every gesture is contained, never violating the production’s ritualized formality. Likewise, during her penultimate monologue she stands downstage center, stock-still, hands at her sides, yet finds every emotional nuance in the text.

Most impressive, this production remains engaging even when Barker is running out of ideas. The political naivete for which his early work has often been criticized is everywhere apparent here, as he creates a world based upon an overly simple dichotomy: artists have imagination and no power, the state has power and no imagination. The issues Barker raises–our culture’s tendency to silence outspoken women and depoliticize art by canonizing it–are presented in simplistic terms that leave little room for ambiguity.

Luckily Goulding’s approach allows for enormous ambiguity, perhaps most successfully embodied in Urgentino. As performed with staggering agility by Yasen Peyankov, this mealymouthed self-aggrandizer becomes that most rare of theatrical creations, a comic menace. He’s as absurd as he is terrifying, and one can never get a clear bead on what he’s after. Peyankov’s mercurial approach to the character is the perfect foil to Hoerdemann’s forthrightness.

This is not a production without flaws. A couple of cast members are indistinguishable from blocks of wood, and sometimes the meager assortment of lights casts too wide a wash to maintain proper focus. But these limitations point to a show made by people interested in art rather than product. Unlike that inhuman nightmare Chicago, which apparently came out of a Broadway machine with the “big” and “obvious” knobs set on 11, Scenes From an Execution is built on a human scale. If it falters, it falters primarily because European Repertory can’t spend $100,000 to render it seamless. It’s a show with pretensions no bigger than the room that holds it, and as a consequence it overflows the room. When on occasion the actors sit on the windowsills and stare out at the city, stripping away all artifice and insisting that we be present together in this moment, the room becomes a sacred space that would have made Grotowski proud.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still by Jim Alexander Newberry.