In Howard Barker’s 1990 play Scenes From an Execution, a young painter tells an older one: “Give the people what they want, and they will love you. They will exclaim over you.” The older painter, Galactia (Jan Maxwell), doesn’t take this advice—nor, seemingly, does the Potomac Theatre Project. After all, they’re staging Howard Barker, that grim and intransigent British playwright—hardly a popular choice. And they’ve followed him with a dour double bill of Sarah Kane’s Crave and Neal Bell’s Somewhere in the Pacific. But give the people—and Potomac—some credit: The audiences who sat through this un-summery fare did exclaim over it.
Scenes From an Execution unfurls in 16th-century Venice. It concerns a fictional painter, Galactia, who has accepted a commission from the Doge of Venice to paint a gigantic work of public art celebrating the Battle of Lepanto. Trouble is, she doesn’t think there’s much worth celebrating. Though the younger painter begs her to obey the state, Galactia insists: “Someone has got to speak for dead men.” The result: When one viewer sees the painting, he can only gasp: “Oh, God. What are all these bodies doing here?”
Scenes is an unashamedly Brechtian work, a play of ideas rather than emotions. It explores the problem of patriotism, the place of the state, the rigors of artistic practice, and what terrible stooges we critics are. At times, it’s frustrating not to feel an emotional connection to these characters, but Barker provides sufficient questions and conjectures to occupy the mind. And though director Richard Romagnoli encourages rather campy performances from several of the actors, he coaxes fine work from Maxwell. Her skin ashen, her hair in disarray, she gives an unbeautiful turn as the self-described “Egotistical and Monstrous Woman.”
Sarah Kane calls herself far worse things in Crave, a dramatic poem for four voices, all of which might be the late writer’s own. Though some speakers are male and some female, the voices all seem to flow from the same fractured intellect. In their discussions of love, abuse, and suicide attempts, they adopt bits of Kane’s history. One voice says, as though by way of explanation: “She’s talking about herself in the third person because the idea of being who she is, of acknowledging that she is herself, is more than her pride can take.” In director Cheryl Faraone’s production, the choice of actors and their costumes—a little girl, a teenaged boy, a businesswoman, an unctuous older man—suggests a temptation to psychologize, typically a mistake with Kane. Nevertheless, Faraone encourages her cast to present the lines simply and briskly, delivering the dreadful, mordant power of Kane’s language.
There’s nothing nearly so dreadful or mordant about Neal Bell’s Somewhere in the Pacific. Though a capable ghost story, it’s not nearly so compelling as either Kane’s or Barker’s play, or Bell’s own best work. On a troop ship in World War II, yearning and brutality nearly flood the vessel. When you’re on the high seas, prey to sexual desire, and one of your main characters is named Billy, it simply can’t end well. Nor does it. The competing narratives of a father investigating a son’s suicide, two sailors engaging in a passionate affair, and a third trying to secure a dishonorable discharge are eventually exploded. Director Jim Petosa stages the play in murky half-light, but unlike his colleagues, he never quite sets a course for nightmare.