Female Trouble

Scenes From an Execution
Presented by Fifth Floor. Written by Howard Barker. Directed by Kenn Watt. Starring Patricia Silver, Jordan Winer, and Patrick Costigan. At Brava Theater Center, 2789 24th St., 267-1836.

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.

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