The great Jan Maxwell has said she is retiring from the theater, and if so, she has she chosen to revive a brilliant role in a brilliant play to go out on: Galactia in “Scenes From an Execution” by Howard Barker, presented by PTP/NYC at The Atlantic Stage 2 in Chelsea. But I hope she will be persuaded otherwise.
This is the 29th season for the PTP (Potomac Theater Project), and their 9th year in New York City. They are a fantastic company, and I mean that in every sense of the word: to enjoy the company of, and to be a company of performing artists. “Scenes From an Execution” is no ex-ception: the sets are minimal yet functional with no waste (by Hallie Zieselman), the costumes absolutely beautiful (original design by Jule Emerson, additional design by Mira Veikley) and it boasts a phenomenal ensemble, not least among them, Jan Maxell. Maxwell is Galactia, the best artist in 16th century Venice, a genius, who is commissioned to paint a 100 foot mural of a battle at sea; in effect, to paint war. Her married lover, Carpeta (David Barlow) is also a painter but not in the same league. He has made “peace with life,” which affects his rather dull style of painting Jesus repeatedly. Temperamentally, they are complete opposites; he loves Galactia, sleeps with Galactia, but does not understand her.
As it is a commission, Urgentino, the Doge of Venice (Alex Draper-superb), a Cardinal (Steven Dykes-officiously irritating) and the Venetian state want a depiction of glory and triumph, cele-bration and victory over the Turkish soldiers. Galactia wants no such thing: she will paint the truth, the guts and gore of war, literally, no matter what it may cost her. Arrogant, uncompromising, selfish, yet brilliant, she knows that once the mural is finished, there will be a price to pay, and pay it she will. Ironically, Galactia could have withstood being broken, tortured, plunged into eternal darkness. What she does not foresee is giving up part of her soul (largely due to, ahem, a critic, Rivera, played pitch-perfectly by Pamela J. Gray).
At one point, Galactia’s daughter says to her, “Give the people what they want.” Given that Maxwell (and I for one am an enormous fan, having seen her both on and off Broadway), in a recent Time Out New York interview, said her reasons for retirement had to do with loving off-Broadway but being “disappointed in the kind of theater that you can make a living doing,” the choice of “Scenes from an Execution” makes perfect sense. Maxwell says, “It’s probably my fa-vorite role…Galactia is a strong, unsympathetic woman, and you don’t see that very often in theater, although you’re starting to see it more.” I urge you to see Jan Maxwell in “Scenes…” and then imagine her, in, say, “Cats,” by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Even if offered an obscene amount of money, for her it would be a soul-killer. Because Maxwell is Galactia, down to her bones. You can feel it in the performance; this is what she lives, who she is, and the truth of her art is what she believes in.
This is a clarion call to all notable playwrights! Write something of brilliance for Jan Maxwell. Don’t let her retire. Don’t…