By Howard Barker
Directed by Richard Romagnoli
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.” – Seamus Heaney, “Digging”
“Give us a pencil. . .Somebody. . .Give us a pencil.” – Bela in “No End of Blame”
The Potomac Theatre Project is celebrating its thirtieth repertory season in 2016 with ten consecutive seasons in New York City. The Company’s annual visit is always highly anticipated and its exit back to Maryland and Washington, D.C. bittersweet. PTP/NYC brings the highest level of quality in performance and production values and brings its unique brand of engaging theatre to the Atlantic Stage 2 annually. The offerings are not always easy on the audience and the company’s commitment to “engaging dialogue from the stage” is sometimes – but of necessity – deeply daunting.
This is certainly the case with Howard Barker’s 1981 “No End of Blame: Scenes of Overcoming” currently running in repertory with C. P. Taylor’s “Good” through Sunday August 7. Playwright Howard Barker is the consummate wordsmith, a writer whose insistence on being heard and seen can – and should – feel a bit intrusive at times. “No End of Blame” – from the opening scene in 1918 on a battlefield near the Carpathians until the final scene in 1973 in an institution – Hungarian cartoonist Bela Veracek (played with a brooding intensity by Alex Draper) brandishes his pencil and creates political cartoons that not only challenge the status quo but also unequivocally criticize the political-economic systems of the governments he exists within.
In the play’s thirteen scenes (divided into two acts), playwright Barker rehearses events in the life of protagonist Bela that serve to not only provide exposition but also support the main character’s conflict and move the plot forward in engaging and challenging ways – raising rich and enduring questions throughout. What is art – the Franciso Goya hanging in a corporate board room or the Renald Luzier political cartoon in Charlie Hebdo? Which is mightier the brush or the pencil – the oils or the graphite? What does art look like? Could it look like the life of the studio model and not just her/his anatomy? Is there a time the artist should lay down his or her pencil and succumb to the sounds of silence?
The owners of the newspapers Bela works for, including the “Mirror,” often find “a quality of depression” in his work – usually a euphemism for “your cartoons are hitting the bourgeoisie a bit to truthfully.” Bela champions the truth as he understands it and never shies away from revealing it in his work. He is a champion of the “self” and refuses in every “scene” of his life to surrender that self to anyone or to anything. Bela “does not like the world” but gives his life to expose its deleterious underbelly.
Under Richard Romagnoli’s taut and considered direction, each member of the ensemble cast of “No End of Blame” delivers powerfully authentic performances. The principals – in addition to Mr. Draper – include David Barlow as Belas’s friend Grigor, Stephanie Janssen as Ilona, Valerie Leonard as Stella (and others), Christopher Marshall as the 2nd Comrade (and others), and Jonathan Tindle as Hoogstraten (and others). The remainder of the ensemble cast all bring honest performances and give their characters depth and believability.
Although “No End of Blame” focuses specifically on the life of the artist, Bela’s conflicts resonate profoundly with Everyman’s ennui and angst and the extended metaphors of this important play counterpoint the oppressive political environment extant currently in the United States (and beyond). Only one caveat: Howard Barker’s words are so powerful, so incisive, one must listen carefully and be sure not to miss a moment of the action they generate on stage.