By Donna Herman
It’s understandable why the PTP/NYC (Potomac Theater Project) chose “No End of Blame” to run in rep as part of their 30th Anniversary season at the Atlantic Stage 2. Although the play was written in 1981, long before the heinous attacks against the satirical French publication Charlie Hebdo in 2015, one can draw the obvious comparisons between the fiery cartoonist Bela Veracek (Alex Draper) at the center of the fictional action, and the real-life murdered French satirists. According to playwright Howard Barker, when it comes to political cartoonists, there really is no end of blame. Apparently no one likes to be made fun of and no one, especially no one in power, has a sense of humor about themselves. Set in Europe and Britain between 1918 and 1973, the play is loosely based on real life German-British artist Victor Weisz who drew popular political cartoons under the name “Vicky” in Britain.
Whereas in real life, we tend to either canonize or demonize our dead, in the landscape of the action of this play which opens on a battlefield in Romania at the end of WWI in 1918 and ends in a hospital in London in 1973, our protagonist is neither a saint nor a sinner. Or perhaps he is both. In a mesmerizing performance, Alex Draper gives us a Bela who is fiery, funny, contemplative yet explosive. He is universally acknowledged to be gifted with an unmatched artistic talent and clearly driven by an inner compulsion to “tell the truth” as he sees it. Like most artistic giants in their own time and minds, he has an ego to match. He concedes that the cartoon may be the lowest form of art, but declares it to be the most important.
We meet a young Bela and his friend and fellow artist Grigor (David Barlow) on a gruesome battlefield in the Carpathian Mountains in what appears to be a final battle of WWI. Grigor has a gun pointed on a young half nude woman whom he wants only to draw, while Bela, when summoned, is moved to rape but is prevented from doing so by his artistic friend. Immediately the contrast between the two is established that will continue to illuminate the two very disparate artists and friends. Bela’s care and compassion are all reserved for the masses – his interpersonal relationships are marked by arrogance and even cruelty. While loyal, softhearted Grigor, (in an utterly charming and touching performance by David Barlow) wants only to draw and be loved.
After the horrors of war, Bela and Grigor return to Budapest to art school to pursue their original dream of becoming artists. The most talented student in the class, Bela feels too restricted by the criticism of his professors and the classical parameters of their curriculum, so he seduces a fellow student, Ilona (Stephanie Janssen), and convinces her and a reluctant Grigor to go in search of artistic and political freedom across Europe.
As it turns out, those are hard commodities to come by. Nobody on any side of the political spectrum is interested in being the subject of a cartoon by Bela. Not Lenin or the comrades in Moscow where he starts out, or Churchill and the Lords in London, where he winds up. In the end, Bela is alone in London, having left Ilona and Grigor in Russia together and rejected the bonds of love and friendship to pursue his truth.
Howard Barker has set us up to believe that this is a play about politics and political freedom, but that’s a red herring. The two very funny and brilliantly acted ensemble scenes where Bela is warned to moderate his message by the Comrades in Moscow and the Lords in London, are cartoons themselves. They are peopled by deftly drawn caricatures who we are able to recognize immediately and laugh at, but not see as complete human beings. The only real, complex, nuanced characters in the play are Bela, Grigor & Ilona. The tension and conflict between them is, from the beginning, art or truth versus love. Do you give up one for the other? Are they mutually exclusive? Does great artistic talent excuse anti-social behavior (full disclosure – a pet peeve of mine)? These are questions for the ages that many have grappled with. Mr. Barker has given us a lot to think about in “No End of Blame” whether we’re inclined to view this as a personal drama, a political revelation, or a question of art. And the director Richard Romagnoli and the PTP/NYC has done an excellent job of presenting its many facets to us engagingly.
“No End of Blame” by Howard Barker, directed by Richard Romagnoli
WITH: Alex Draper (Bela), David Barlow (Grigor, Deeds), Christopher Marshall (2nd Comrade, Stringer, Dockerill, Airman), Nicholas Hemerling (Mic, Strubenzee, Art Student, Red Soldier), Jonathan Tindle (Hungarian Officer, Diver, 1st Comrade, Hoogstraten, Lowry, Bilwitz), Christo Grabowski (Art Student, Airman, 5th Comrade, Red Soldier, GPU Man), Valerie Leonard (Stella, Tea Lady, Doctor Glasson, 4th Comrade), Stephanie Janssen (Ilona), Alexander Burnett (Hungarian Soldier Art Student, 3rd Comrade, Airman, Nurse, Customs Officer), Steven Medina (Hungarian Soldier, Art Student, Airman, Customs Officer, Nurse), Shannon Gibbs (Girl, Art Student, Gardner, Airwoman, Nurse), Gabrielle Owens (Art Student, Gardner, Airwoman, Nurse), Ashley Michelle (Art Student, Gardner, Airwoman, Diver’s Secretary, Nurse)
Scenic design by Mark Evancho; lighting design by Hallie Zieselman; costume design by Danielle Nieves; sound design by Seth Clayton; Production Stage Manager, Eric Marlin; Production Manager, Hallie Zieselman; press representation by David Gibbs, DARR Publicity, marketing/advertising by The Pekoe Group. Presented by PTP/NYC (Potomac Theatre Project) Cheryl Faraone, Jim Petosa, Richard Romagnoli, Co-Artistic Directors; Alex Draper, Associate Artistic Director. At Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street. Fo