First Nighter: PTP/NYC Champions the Ladies By Way of Howard Barker, Caryl Churchill, Jan Maxwell

The treatment of women as second-class members of humanity, no matter what their accomplishments, is occupying the thoughts of the Potomac Theatre Project (PTP/NYC), again in residence this summer at Atlantic II. Happily, the subject matter is turning into some of the company's best work in their 25 years.

When the 16th-century Venetian artist Galactia (Jan Maxwell) is first spotted in Howard Barker's Scenes From an Execution, she's sketching the bare buttocks of her married lover and fellow painter Carpeta (David Barlow). It's an instant tip-off to her rambunctious and labile free-spirit nature. The sketch is among the many studies she's completing for the spacious mural she's been commissioned by Urgentino, the Doge (Alex Draper), to provide as a memorial to the Battle of Lepanto, an unprecedented 1571 naval success.

The problem arises for her, however, when she insists on depicting graphic carnage. It's a bodaciously more truthful account of the event than the triumphant vision the authorities want to see. Committed to her belief in what art is and, for that reason, often considered mad by those who know her, she refuses to rein her work. The inflexibility gets her imprisoned but only temporarily before Barker ends his account -- a story assumed to be based loosely on Artemisia Gentileschi (see below), the early female artist of dark subjects.

When dramatists or novelists write about artists, it's almost always a sign of their glomming onto a handy metaphor for writing about the resistance that ground-breaking -- or self-proclaimed ground-breaking -- artists experience from conventional society. Viewed from that perspective, Scenes From an Execution is another of those parables.

What Galactia undergoes may be a spin on the contempt the playwright himself, who's well known to be iconoclastic, has endured at the hands, tongues and pens of critics, government officials and the wider public. In the two-act play, Barker includes representatives of all these types in one guise or another.

Since Galactia's work is supposedly hung on the theater's illusory fourth wall -- as is the replacement work soon commissioned from lesser but more accommodating artist Carpeta -- the audience never sees it but does hear about how her initially insulting rendering comes to be regarded over time.

This is Barker's implied explanation of how all art thought to be coarse, crude, unacceptable when first revealed is not only eventually taken up as acceptable but, and this is more to the point, becomes mainstream. In one scene, the word "conciliatory" is mocked, but the dramatist's notion is that there is an ultimate and unassailable conciliator: time. Barker sends his message about conciliation -- and perhaps the wisdom of acceding to it -- right through to the very last word, which happens to be uttered by Galactia.

Director Richard Romagnoli's production -- Jule Emerson and Mira Veikley's costumes are more 19th century than 16th century -- is spare and elegant and does thorough justice to Barker's hyper-tense exchanges. One of the most moving of them has Galactia offering Carpeta a sneak peek at her work. Looking at it, he breaks down. Without speaking a word he indicates his understanding of the huge gap between her talent and his. It's a moment up there with Salieri's perusing Mozart's scores in Amadeus.

While excellent performances are given by, among others, Stephen Dykes, Bill Army, Pamela J. Gray and Adam Ludwig, Maxwell is the cynosure here. Over the years, she's run a lengthy gamut of emotions in the plays and musicals she's graced but possibly never before has she been called on to let loose the range she spills here. Her hair loose, her face a flickering canvas, her body aflame with gestures, she's at the top of her form. Maxwell has announced that this is her goodbye to the stage. If that's so, a fan can only respect her decision, but this fan and thousands of others will selfishly wish it weren't so.
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The second half of the rep season includes Judith, a shorter Barker piece, along with Caryl Churchill's Vinegar Tom. In the former, Barker presents the Judith who presents herself to Assyrian general Holofernes just before dawn of the day he's due to battle Israeli forces. As introduced by a servant (Patricia Buckley), who's more like a madam or pimp, Judith (Pamela J. Gray) initially seems not only humble but also humiliated.

Not that much time passes, however, before avenging widow Judith finds her tongue and her sword and uses it to separate Holofernes's head from the rest of his body, as has been depicted in any number of paintings by Renaissance artists like Artemisia Gentileschi, the supposed model for the above-mentioned Galactia.

Empowered by her action, Judith isn't satisfied with the slicing but instead becomes aroused to the extent she attempts intercourse with the corpse. This extension of the story appears to be Barker's imagination running away with him. It's a bizarre speculation on how an oppressed woman might feel free to compensate for her previous subordination in a man's world.

Until Holofernes (Alex Draper) is duped by Judith and companion, he's been the inflexible despot. Barker must think Holofernes deserves this posthumous ignominy. The exercise in flamboyant female behavior is directed by Romagnoli with all stops out and played by the three actors with no holds barred -- pretty much literally.

Churchill's Vinegar Tom, directed by Cheryl Faraone, might strike some viewers as a spin on The Crucible, Arthur Miller's incendiary period piece in response to the House Un-American Activities Committee's witch hunt. As it unfolds -- longer eventually than it needs to -- several women in a backward 17th-century rural English community are accused of witchery. Like Miller, Churchill is examining the deleterious effects of fear on the narrow-minded.

Curiously enough, the action begins with one of the women having sex with a man claiming to be the devil, which gives Churchill's extended one-actor an instant resonance with Barker's Judith and Scenes From an Execution. (Whole lotta shtupping going on.) In time the randy coupling proves destructive for the female participant, who's only one of the locals charged with, and convicted of, demonic behavior.

Every so often three women observing the carryings-on -- Caitlin Rose Duffy, Joelle Mendoza and Liana Barron -- interrupt the proceedings to sing songs about witchery with lyrics by Churchill and music by Carol Christensen. The trio begins to take on a "bubble-bubble-toil-and-trouble" air that adds to the gloom and doom.

The ensemble -- among them Tara Giordano, Stephen Dykes, Chelsea Melone, Nesba Crenshaw and Patricia Buckley -- builds the disturbing dramatic tension. Set designer Hallie Zieselman and costumer Annie Ulrich also enhance the look.