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Arizona Repertory Theatre turns in a vital, if flawed, production of 'Scenes From an Execution'

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Don't be misled by the title. Howard Barker's Scenes From an Execution is not a death row play; it's a comic drama about the execution of what we'd now call a public-art commission in late 16th-century Venice. And don't be misled by that description. This is neither an ordinary costume drama nor an old-fashioned comedy of manners. It's a thoroughly contemporary play, mordant and funny, about a painter's integrity, vision and sheer misguided orneriness, and the state's clumsy dance with artists it can't quite trust to glorify its exploits. (Think Amadeus.)

The University of Arizona's advanced student company, Arizona Repertory Theatre, has mounted a gorgeous production that almost but not quite does Barker's play full justice. The problems: intermittently effective but ultimately monochromatic portrayals of two colorful artists, and one directorial decision that yanks Barker's sharp teeth right out of his head. (Think Rent.)

Anna Galactia is a notorious Venetian painter, a tremendously gifted artist with a history of sexual promiscuity and a career hobbled by her fury, contempt and arrogance. (She's loosely based on an actual painter of the period.) The rulers of Venice, at the insistence of the Doge, Urgentino, have selected Galactia to execute a huge painting celebrating the republic's costly victory at the Battle of Lepanto. Galactia, unfortunately, lacks the pity and political savviness to depict the scene with the expected nobility; partly because she hates war, and partly because she has a reputation as a maverick to uphold, she insists on delivering a huge, bloody scene that presents the truth with limited regard for the facts. Or maybe it's the other way around. (Think Fahrenheit 9/11.)

As insurance, Urgentino enlists Galactia's troubled lover, Carpeta, to prepare an alternate version to government specifications. Carpeta's specialty, though, is scenes of Christ among the flocks, and he's as ill-equipped as Galactia to produce a painting that balances artistic integrity with the demands of the commission.

Ultimately, the clergy gets in on the act in the person of Cardinal Ostensible, and Galactia is subjected to a sort of artistic inquisition. The clergyman, the politician and the artist herself all understand that Galactia perversely wants to be broken somehow. She is, but it's not her brief stint in prison that does it.

There, at the very end, is where director Brent Gibbs goes wrong. After two hours of canny choices, playing up Barker's ironic humor even while sharpening the edge of each character, Gibbs ultimately turns the whole thing into a slightly perverse love story. Barker offers no guidance in the script other than the words the characters speak, but I see a much darker ending than does Gibbs, who allows Galactia to be gently neutralized and then given a consolation prize.

Galactia is not an entirely sympathetic character, which is one of the play's best aspects. She is incredibly strong, yet arrogant, insensitive, proud and ambitious. Not a bad person, but not a pleasant dinner companion, either. UA senior Victoria Holden plays Galactia with an impressive degree of spitting contempt; many actresses might be too fearful of losing the audience's sympathy, but Holden's Galactia is a torch swinging dangerously amid the canvases and oils. Holden is less effective, though, when Galactia reveals her milder side; Holden resorts to declamation, and seems no longer to believe in her character.

Similarly, sophomore Scott Reynolds as Carpeta nicely conveys his character's beleaguered, soft nature (all the male characters here are rather effete), but he misses the complexity that would make Carpeta a more compelling figure in the second act.

Otherwise, the large cast works at a consistently high level. Most prominent are Kevin Black as the primping but politically lucid Doge Urgentino; Joey Topmiller as the oddly compassionate (and gay) admiral who led the battle; Brian Hendricks as the almost Kafka-esque cardinal; and Alison Kreindler as the pragmatic and beautiful art critic. And those with smaller roles are just as good, including Stefan Espinosa as an opportunistic, grotesquely wounded war veteran named Prodo (which sounds like "Frodo," and his light voice and curly black wig could make him a double for Elijah Wood in Lord of the Rings).

Kyle Schellinger has designed luscious costumes, and scene designer Tara Houston creates a rich-looking set with fairly minimal materials. A nice touch is having cellist Charlotte Bernhardt play the musical interludes between scenes live and in costume.

Even though I think Gibbs makes an ill-considered choice at the end, he otherwise injects a great deal of physical as well as verbal vitality into this word-heavy play (it began as a radio script). Right now, Scenes From an Execution will make us think of the U.S. Army trying to suppress images of flag-draped coffins, and the farcical failure to create something truly new and good at the World Trade Center site. But Barker, with help from Gibbs, avoids becoming preachy and self-righteous, and his 20-year-old play will surely remain relevant for decades to come.

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