Durang’s Dysfunctional Home Life; Barker’s Stubborn Renaissance Painter

“What can I do?” he says, throwing up his hands in exasperation during a marriage counseling session. “So I mumble

“What can I do?” he says, throwing up his hands in exasperation during a marriage counseling session. “So I mumble platitudes to these people who come to me with these insoluble problems. And I think to myself, ‘Why didn’t they think before they got married?’ Why does no one ever think? Why did God make people stupid? … Are there any questions?”

There are lots of questions; no answers. It might be that Mr. Durang’s biggest question of all—or unanswered prayer—is, “What is there to have faith in anymore?” Ecce his American family! The Marriage of Bette and Boo is a comedy in which desperation and deep, deep unhappiness are beyond laughter.

The excellent production has been well paced and directed by Walter Bobbie, and the effectively simple bright red set is designed by David Corins. The 10-strong cast is the tops. Let me single out among all the fine performances Julie Hagerty as the mysteriously named Soot, frantically coping with life through wide, terrified eyes; and Kate Jennings Grant’s Bette—obsessed, nagging, childish, touching, a foolish saint, and a sometime wife, to poor, pickled Boo.

 

WASHINGTON’S POTOMAC THEATRE PROJECT made a typically bold choice of Howard Barker’s Scenes From an Execution for the opening production of their summer residency at Atlantic Stage 2. The fierce, unsentimental dramas of Howard Barker, the veteran British polemicist and Brechtian, are considered too forbiddingly serious by some—though not by the admirably committed Potomac troupe.

Contrary to Mr. Barker’s reputation here, Richard Romagnoli’s spare production of Mr. Barker’s 1990 play about art’s dangerous potency is accessible enough. (There are even a few absurdist laughs that Christopher Durang fans might appreciate.)

In Renaissance Venice, a fictitious painter, rebel and slut named Galactia (played by the company’s distinguished guest actress, Jan Maxwell) is commissioned by the doge to paint a giant canvas celebrating the Battle of Lepanto. Unfortunately for Galactia, she doesn’t depict the noble Christian ideal of virtuous war, but the truth about the bloody sacrificial battle. “Someone’s got to speak for dead men,” she argues.

Now, only Mr. Barker knows why the doge of Venice would choose a notoriously free-spirited nonconformist for the job. Everything about his principled, near-demented Galactia opposes official government art and the critical acceptance of powerful mediocrities. (So does Mr. Barker.) But what follows intriguingly from his shaky premise is a provocative play of ideas about the arrogance of power and artistic censorship; commercial compromise and proud, suicidal independence; and government propaganda about the conduct of war and unvarnished, unpoliticized reality.

The Inspector Clouseau within me speculates that Mr. Barker based his Galactia, if not on himself, then on the Venetian painter Paolo Veronese, who also painted a Battle of Lepanto. More to the point, in 1573 Veronese painted a giant canvas depicting the Last Supper, which was considered heretical (like Galactia’s painting). Veronese was investigated by the Inquisition, but a happy compromise was reached: He obligingly agreed to change the title of his sacrilegious work to the anodyne The Feast in the House of Levi—and it’s currently on display at the Accademia in Venice.

The unrepentant Galactia, however, refused to compromise and was thrown in jail. All the lady had to do was shut up and change the name of her painting, too. But had she done so, Mr. Barker wouldn’t have had his play about the price of moral compromise and war, and we wouldn’t have had the memorable whirlwind performance of Jan Maxwell as the unyielding Renaissance artist, Galactia.

jheilpern@observer.com

Durang’s Dysfunctional Home Life; Barker’s Stubborn Renaissance Painter