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No End of Blame: Scenes of Overcoming

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - July 13, 2016

Alex Draper
Photo by Stan Barouh

"Artists are very dangerous people," declares Bela Veracek (Alex Draper), the acerbic political cartoonist at the center of Howard Barker's equally acerbic 1981 drama No End of Blame: Scenes of Overcoming, opening tonight in a tautly performed, if occasionally meandering production by PTP/NYC (the Potomac Theatre Project) in its annual summer residency at Atlantic Stage 2.

The company has a particular affinity for the plays of Howard Barker, the British playwright who uses the term "theatre of catastrophe" to describe his body of work, which often explores the more unsavory aspects of human nature. Last year, for instance, we were treated to a Barker play about a murderess who attempts to have sex with the man she has just decapitated (Judith: A Parting from the Body). The year before, we had Gertrude: The Cry, Barker's sexually and politically explosive take on Hamlet.

With No End of Blame, Barker returns to another of his favorite themes, the nature of art and its power to disturb. Mr. Draper, who also serves as the company's associate artistic director, plays the Hungarian cartoonist from his late teens to the age of 75. We join him in a Brechtian voyage through much of the Twentieth Century and its two World Wars, the Russian Revolution, and the Cold War, a journey that takes us from the Carpathian Mountains to the Soviet Union to England.

By making his protagonist a political cartoonist rather than a traditional artist, the playwright is able to build the work with layers of satire that allow him to take jabs at everyone, and, particularly in Act II, at his native England, where Barker is considered to be something of an outsider and an iconoclast. In this play, Bela, the central character, begins his artistic career doing life studies and writing some poetry. But he quickly abandons these when he finds another outlet more to his liking, an ability to lash out with a cartoonist's sharp eye for capturing the social and political ugliness and hypocrisy he sees all around him. "A painting changes the artist," he explains, but "a cartoon changes the world." (Nicely rendered cartoons created by Gerald Scarfe, himself a well-known illustrator and editorial cartoonist, are helpfully projected during the play).

And though it seems to come as a surprise to Bela, the world and its wielders of power do not always take kindly to being skewered. As an audience, we are probably not terribly astonished to find that Stalin does not take kindly to Bela's attacks, but it is another thing when his reception by government officials in England strikes a disturbingly similar chord. It is most interesting to watch Bela's reaction, which switches between stubborn determination and self-protective strategic withdrawal. Martyrdom is never his goal; he is seeking a spot in the world where he can rant without the risk of consequence to himself. An ironic twist of an ending provides him just such a spot.

No End of Blame is at its best when it concentrates on Bela's story. The other members of the cast, many of whom play multiple roles, make for an excellent and fine-tuned ensemble under Richard Romagnoli's astute direction. But, frustratingly, every time we become interested in any of the other characters, especially Bela's dear friend Grigor (David Barlow) with whom he seems to share a bond that reminds us of Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting For Godot, the thread dissipates and nearly disappears altogether. The same is true of Bela's relationship with his wife (Stephanie Janssen), who likewise intrigues and then evaporates to an afterthought.

Still, the core story is well worth the tangential side trips and gives us much to ponder. Barker uses the play to examine the potentially explosive power of expression within the hands of a gifted political cartoonist. It is unlikely, however, that he could have envisioned the extremes of the all-too-real terrorist attack and slaughter that occurred last year at the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Art and life. Life and art.

No End of Blame: Scenes of Overcoming
Through August 7
Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street between 8th & 9th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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