In 1571, European forces allied with the Republic of Venice inflicted decisive defeat on the mighty Ottoman fleet. The Battle of Lepanto has been depicted by several notable Italian painters, including Tintoretto, Titian, and Veronese. However, for Scenes From an Execution, English playwright Howard Barker invents a brilliant, headstrong artist, an audacious and vivacious woman named Galactia who bears a vague resemblance to Artemisia Gentileschi. She is commissioned by the Doge of Venice, a wily patron of the arts, to create an epic, 100-foot-long rendition of the historic event that will be “not a painting but a public event.” But Galactia, who declares, “I do not trust beauty. It is an invention and a lie,” is intent on conveying the gruesome truth, not glorifying Venice. Her devastating account of the horrors of battle makes even her rivals weep. But for the furious authorities, her portrayal is a betrayal, an assault upon the majesty of Venice.
For the inception of Inception Theatre, an ambitious new drama company, director Mandy Whitlock has chosen a work that probes the social responsibilities of the artist, the role of sexuality in art, and the fluctuations of interpretation. Scenes From an Execution is radiant with energy and ideas, and Whitlock’s production fully succeeds in harnessing the power of the play. It is a superb realization of theater’s potential to challenge the mind and engage the senses.
By focusing on painters or painting, several recent plays (e.g., Red, Art, Impressionism, The Line) exploit the visual impact of placing a canvas onstage. Though we can certainly imagine it, we never get to see Galactia’s version of the Battle of Lepanto. However, we do share in the process of making art. The title Scenes From an Execution points not only to the state’s lethal power to punish dissent, but also to the challenge of showing how a static work of art is brought to dramatic life. Before the (imaginary) curtain goes up at the Jump-Start Performance Co., the audience can watch Rebecca Buckley labor over a painting that remains in progress throughout the run of the production. The play’s plot is resolved when a clever Venetian critic (Jennifer Colacino) argues, like the deconstructionist Derrida, that art is fluid, whatever we construe it to be. “There is no such thing as what happens,” says one of the principals in the battle, “only views of what happens.” A choral figure named Sketchbook (Alessandra Manon) hovers about the proceedings with an empty picture frame that is as important as what it frames.
“I have never been at peace with life,” declares Galactia, in what could be the performance of a career except — I hope — she surely has much more in store. Catherine Babbitt is riveting as the restless, brash, witty, sensual, vulnerable figure, one in full awareness that, though a woman defying patriarchal conventions and power, she is the greatest painter in Venice. “To paint is to boast, and if you don’t like boasting you ought not to paint,” she states. The sparks Babbitt’s Galactia strikes with Carpeta (Robert Jerdee), both her professional rival and her married lover, with Urgentino (Marc Daratt), the cunning ruler of Venice, and with her two daughters (Kelsey Kramer and Krystal Kohler), apprentices whom she dismisses as “drapery painters,” keep the stage illuminated even when the action shifts to a murky dungeon. The only figure as mesmerizing as Babbitt’s Catherine is Jeffrey Dorman’s impersonation of Suffici, the Venetian admiral who defeated the Turks. “I am the least vain of men,” brags Suffici, but when he beholds his unflattering image in Galactia’s painting, he is apoplectic. Dorman’s exquisitely wrought temper tantrum is one of the highlights of the production.
Though clothed in Renaissance garb, the characters (given whimsical names such as Dementia and Lasagna) stand outside both the 16th and 21st centuries. A comic take on history and theater, this production of Scenes From an Execution is one of the highlights of San Antonio theatrical history, and an astonishing debut for a refreshing new company. •
Scenes From an Execution
Through Jul 25
Inception Theatre at Jump-Start