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2023-2024 SeasonScenes from an Execution

‘Scenes From an Execution’ Takes a Quantum Leap Into the Power of Art

By March 25, 2024April 2nd, 2024No Comments

Hansel Tan and Lisa Velten Smith in a scene from ‘Scenes From an Execution’, thee Quantum Theatre season finale. (Images: Jason Snyder)

onStage – Director Andrew William Smith and star Lisa Velten Smith discuss the Pittsburgh premiere and 2023-24 season finale.

Don’t be deceived by the title Scenes From an Execution. Although it may sound like Quantum Theatre is inviting audiences to something with deadly consequences, to execute is also to follow through, and to create.

In the Howard Barker play that lands at the venerable Abiding Missions in Pittsburgh’s Allentown neighborhood, April 5 – 27, 2024, a commissioned painting in 16th-century Venice is executed in a way that has consequences for the artist and everyone in her orbit.

If it still sounds very serious, note that there is satire afoot as well. Consider character names such as Ostensible, The Sketchbook and Lasagna, and you know not to make assumptions about Scenes From an Execution.

The play will be the first directed for Quantum by frequent actor Andrew William Smith and stars his wife, Lisa Velten Smith, as the artist Galactia.

The award-winning actress, who can be seen in a recurring role in the filmed-in-Western-PA American Rust: Broken Justice on Prime Video, recalled seeing the 2015 off-Broadway production, starring Jan Maxwell.

“It was riveting and intriguing and exciting and funny,” she said. “And it’s thrilling when a play takes you on a ride and you don’t know what’s coming next.”

For director Smith, in looking for a project that explored the relationships of community to art, he pitched three plays with different approaches to Quantum artistic director Karla Boos

“I learned later on that she read this one and immediately fell for it,” said Smith, whose connection to Scenes From an Execution goes back to college professors who were “Howard Barker fanatics.”

“So this play,” he said, “has been sort of sitting with me for 20 plus years.”

Quantum has gathered a cast that includes his and his wife’s boss at the Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama, where both are faculty members. Robert Ramirez, who became the head of the school in 2022, will make his Pittsburgh theater debut as Doge Urgentino, who commissions the female painter Galactia (Velten Smith) to create a work that celebrates a military victory. She instead produces an anti-war piece, depicting the horrors of battle.

A battle of wills ensues, bringing into question themes such as artistic agency vs. patronage and how art is received independently of its creator. In Quantum Theatre’s description, Scenes from an Execution explores “the relationship between art and power with humor and sensuality[. T]hemes of personal ambition and moral responsibility collide when rebel female painter Galactia is commissioned by the Doge to paint a vast canvas celebrating a triumphant battle. Will she do it his way? This play defies expectation, and we can’t predict how you will feel at the end.”

“This is a play about who controls the truth, and what are the levers of power that are used in order to control the messaging of what the truth is,” said Smith. “This play very much opens up that argument, examines it, dissects it. It doesn’t necessarily present a lot of answers, but I do think it respects an audience to think and to feel for themselves.”

It may surprise 21st–century audiences to know that the rebellious Renaissance artist at the center of the play is based on the real-life Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi.

“ ‘Painting is a sign of arrogance,’ and that is a quote from the play,” Smith notes. “To challenge God on what a tulip looks like is a form of arrogance, and us engaging in art is a form of privilege. And so I think even the fact that there was a female painter in the16th century unto itself is a sign of rebellion. … Artemisia Gentileschi lived an amazing life that we are still talking about to this day. So I don’t think I was necessarily surprised. It feels like what we’re doing is actually centering something that was always there, but we haven’t necessarily paid attention to.”

In a separate interview, Velten Smith talked about studying the real artist in her time, and the artist according to Barker.

“It is exciting to play a character that is unapologetic in their complexities,” she said. “One moment she is saying an absolute truth of, ‘You must have observation in order to be an artist,’ and directly the next scene, with just as much conviction, she’d say, ‘You don’t need to observe as much.’ So there is quite a funny, egotistical part of who she is that is fun to lean into. It’s exciting to place someone who is figuring out how they stand up to authority and how they stand up for what they believe in.”

The play was of course spoken about at home. Andrew and Lisa are educators, theater artists and the parents of tweens, so they are choosy these days about additional work.

Besides the perk of working together, the question Velten Smith finds herself asking is, “Is this project exciting enough and challenging enough that it’s got to be a yes?”

For her husband, she was always the choice to bring Galactia to life onstage.

“Lisa is a beautiful blend of intellectuality, impulsive heart, and a tremendous amount of care for digging and searching and looking,” he said. “Lisa – and Robert, too, but I knew this about Lisa ahead of time – she can commit to work that has perhaps an abstract quality to it, with the intensity and ferocity that the moment may require, without having to overanalyze. And she can very much trust the text and trust her process within that, so she seems like a very good fit stylistically as well.”

As always is the case with Quantum, the venue is an additional character in each production. The enduring building that is the Abiding Missions “leans into” the idea of a gritty church-like Renaissance atmosphere, although the play – originally on BBC Radio, starring Glenda Jackson – has been interpreted with both contemporary and more historical looks.

Top left, Leyla Davis, Lisa Velten Smith and Mariana Garzón Toro observe
Robert Ramirez’s Doge in <em>Scenes From an Execution.</em> (Image: Jason Snyder)

“Walking in and seeing this huge scaffolding is really thrilling – one could feel that they are there. Our set designer and props designer have done a fantastic job of recreating that type of feel,” Smith said. “However, the fabulous thing is, who knows how [these people] acted?  So there isn’t a preciousness about it.”

The playwright takes liberties with reality within the framework of the plot, especially in the character of The Sketchbook (Amy Landis).

The character takes us behind the scenes, so to speak, of Galactia’s artwork.

“Sketchbook takes you into the emotional, psychological, and visual world of the painting,” Velton Smith said. “If you didn’t have Sketchbook, you would only have perhaps a very small percentage of an idea of what Galactia is painting. But when you add Sketchbook it, excuse the pun, fleshes it out and allows you to understand, I think, the level of artistry and mastery, the level of complexity of what she is trying to paint. So you have the argument of what Galaxy is going for, and then Sketchbook is able to take that argument into the audience’s imagination and allow them to see it from that lens.”

The Quantum production of Scenes From an Execution will mark the first Barker play to be staged in Pittsburgh. It is considered to be the playwright’s most accessible work, although not his favorite. Smith is onboard with Barker’s ability to continually upend expectations, and with the accessibility of this particular work.

“I think what’s exciting is, that you have this eloquent, specific and fierce language, poetic language, but it is absolutely accessible,” the director said. “And I think because of that, it really allows the audience to be absorbed into the world and taken for a ride.

The play, the finale of Quantum’s three-show 2023-24 season, has a packed cast that includes Bria Walker-Rhoze as art critic Gina Rivera, Hansel Tan as Carpeta, Galactia’s lover; Jerreme Rodriguez as Suffici; plus Mari Garzon-Toro, Martin Giles, Randy Kovitz and Leyla Davis.

“The fact that we have a play that hasn’t been done in Pittsburgh and a huge, phenomenal cast is thrilling,” Velten Smith said. “You’re going to get a tour de force … I’m biased, but I also love Galactia, and so I feel I’m incredibly excited and thrilled to be able to advocate for this play because I think it’s a reminder that theater can transport me. Theater can make me think about all these different things. I’m not getting something spoonfed to me. I’m not being told what to think. I’m allowed to have my own opinion. And so I’m so excited to speak to people after the show, to go, ‘What are you taking away? Let’s talk about it.’ ”


Quantum Theater’s production of Scenes From an Execution runs 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, April 5-27, 2024, at Abiding Missions, 731 Excelsior Street (a block off East Warrington Avenue). For tickets and special events during the production, visit

Read the full story here.

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