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THEATER REVIEW: The glorious carnage of art

“Scenes from an Execution” examines art and the struggle to convey truth in a re-presentation that by nature is not the same as the truth it is trying to tell. 

It is a complex story, painted beautifully by Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park at their Paseo location. Seating is extremely limited and there are only three shows remaining.

This review is long; here is the short version: if you are an artist or love any form of art and its creation, see this show.  It will follow you long after you leave the theatre.

The work of making art is often either undervalued as trivial, dilettante, a hobby—or overvalued as inspirational, prophetic, self-sacrificing.  Those engaged in the work of making meaning come alive in new and sometimes startling ways know that the work is drudgery, discipline, and discovery with little in the way of security, support, or stability to go with it.

The occasional rare commission from a wealthy and political patron offers some of that stability, but the art asks for something as well.  In the execution of such a commission, any artist is faced with the pressure of pleasing the commissioner while still producing a work that calls forth one’s best as a skilled artisan (technical aspects) and storyteller (the ‘art’ of all art).

In Howard Barker’s play, “Scenes from an Execution,” we follow the artist Galactia (Kathryn McGill) as she attempts to execute a commission from Urgentino, the Doge of Venice, to paint a 30’x100’ canvas depicting the 1571 victory of Venice over the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Lepanto.  For a woman painter in the late Renaissance to receive such a commission was unusual because it carried with it the imprimatur of the state, suggesting that all of the artist’s work was approved by the state.  As the Doge (Ben Hall) explains, he’s taking a risk with her.  It’s because the Doge is a true connoisseur of art that he is willing to take this risk; he recognizes that Galactia is the best technical painter in Venice, describing others as “spent” and “used up.”  But Galactia’s unconventional personal life and reputation is problematic, and Cardinal Ostensible (Jeffrey Ambrosini) is also on the authorizing committee—in fact, he considers his hatred of artists his best qualification to serve on the committee. 

Galactia’s lover and rival painter, Carpeta (Tyler Woods), is part of her complicated life; he won’t leave his wife for Galactia, though he keeps promising.  Galactia’s two daughters—also both painters—Supporta (Jodi Nestander) and Dementia (Ashley Frisbee) are forced by their own needs to distance themselves from their mother.  The locally powerful art critica Rivera (Emily Etherton) plays the game of the patriarchy without irony or self-delusion, and she has little patience for the self-indulgence of others.

And this all revolves around the painting, which we see only in the minds of those observing it. The Doge and the committee want it to celebrate a just and glorious victory.  Admiral Suffici (Clayton J. Blair), ‘hero’ of the battle, is also the brother of the Doge, who wants him featured prominently in the painting.  The Admiral is more concerned that his beautiful hands be beautifully painted.  Galactia is interested in the grim and gritty realism of combat; she paints carnage. 

The conflict evolves in a richly painted and beautifully drawn study of Galactia’s desperate need to paint her vision of truth.  She interviews Prodo (Dakota Bryant), a survivor of the battle who makes a living displaying his wounds for money.  Her interactions with her Sketchbook (Vivian Glazier) are very revealing; the Sketchbook is an aspect of Galactia’s personality and enacts many of the feelings that Galactia dare not show in a man’s world.  

Barker’s text is a poetically and prosaically crafted verbal painting of its own, and it demands real artistry to bring it to life on the stage.  Originally written as a radio play in 1984, it’s been revived in recent years to much acclaim.  Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park’s production is directed with deftness and subtlety by Laura Standley, working with Caprice Woosley as assistant director.  Presented in the OSP theatre in the Paseo, the show uses the confined space as the broad canvas that is its subject, and the audience follows the actors as they paint back and forth across the room.

Deftly handling a complex and demanding character, McGill conveys the passion, professional self-confidence, socio-political ineptitude, and abrasive courage of Galactia with solid precision that nonetheless feels natural and lifelike.  The technical work that creates a ‘natural’ portrait is represented in McGill’s portrayal of the artist at work in her self, her love life, her studio, her family.  It’s a chiaroscuro performance, painted in saturated colors that move in and out of radiance.

Galactia’s chief foils are her lover and her employer.  Woods as Carpeta has a physical presence that screams masculinity, and he employs his considerable skill as an actor to use that presence to carve the petulance, the sensitivity, and the confusion of a male artist in a patriarchal world that does not really see painters as manly.  He is willing to compromise his principles and his talent for the notoriety (and money) of a grand commission.  This is a complex and unexpectedly feminine character in the body of a blustering and undeniably masculine actor.  In the hands of a less competent performer, the role could easily have been a flat canvas; instead, Woods sculpts Carpeta so that the curves and caverns of his character are revealed. 

The Doge Urgentio is an urbane and sensitive man who is also a clever and careful politician.  Hall’s commanding presence is gently used; with the capacity to simply be ‘the boss,’ Hall instead shows us the friendly patron, the supportive mentor—until Urgentio perceives pressure from the Church.  Hall interweaves all the layers of a man who is at once a true patron of art and, at the same time, a political manipulator who can dare to negotiate around even the concerns of the church.  He is the loving brother, the harried administrator, the disingenuous lover of art, the political animal, and still Hall keeps Urgentio likeable even when passing cruel judgement to serve his own ends.  

Ambrosini’s cardinal is a perfectly pompous ass with a veneer of piety; Blair’s admiral is a blustering naval ass with a veneer of sensitivity.  The three actors (Dakota Bryant, Nick Mayes, and Nicholas Plasko) who play many parts are each layering one upon another.  One standout is Bryant’s portrayal of the wounded survivor of Lepanto, Prodo, who is a paradoxically unique everyman. 

And then, the women.  Barker has written a play that puts men in power exploring stereotypically feminine qualities, and women in contention with power displaying stereotypically masculine traits—demonstrating graphically that strength, independence, and lust are feminine attributes too.  Nestander’s Supporta is tough and compassionate and self-preserving without self-pity.  Frisbee’s Dementia is sensual and passionate and self-indulgent without self-destruction.  Etherton’s Rivera exploits every weakness of masculinity that will give her a bit of power, and she uses that power with calculation and, unexpectedly, compassion for other women.  Glazier as the Sketchbook shows us an object that is at once a reflection of the artist as a powerful technician and a reminder to the artist of her limits and fallibility.

The very spare set, designed by Ben Hall, is the canvas upon which the story of the battle of the painting is delineated.  Caroline Shentang’s costumes offer a commentary on social status and understanding: the historical period is indicated by the costumes of the ruling men; working class folks, including artists, are in modern/timeless blue jeans, and the women—all these powerful women—are in 21st century clothing appropriate to their work and social status today.  Carson Decker’s lighting design paints as well, telling us where we are and often when. 

For artists—painters, poets, singers, sculptors, all forms of art—this production of this play examines the mad mistress that is Art and the practical world in which she does business.  This is not a show for everyone, which is just as well, because seating is very limited.  The last three performances are July 21-23 at 8 p.m. at 2920 Paseo in Oklahoma City.  Reserve seats online at or take a risk and come to the theatre at 7 p.m. the day of the show.  For more information, call (405) 235-3700 from 1 to 5 p.m. Wednesday-Friday.