Friday, June 29, 2007

PLAY: "No End Of Blame"

Photo/Stan Barouh

"Cartoon is the lowest form of art," says Bela Veracek, a political cartoonist loosely modeled on Victor Weisz (or perhaps Philip Zee). "And the most important one." It's the latter half of this insightful statement that director Richard Romagnoli has gone with, for there's nothing low about Potomac Theatre Project's revival of Howard Barker's excellent epic No End Of Blame. Bolstered by the menacing ink of Bela's work (actually that of Gerald Scarfe), projected against an otherwise blank canvas, every ounce of this production is as carefully considered as Barker's meticulous word choice (most obvious in a scene with a cultural "critic" in Russia).

The play opens with Veracek as the most unlikely of heroes: conscripted in the Hungarian army during World War I, his logical mind tries to explain how rape might be "considerate" in certain circumstances. Though Bela's strong opinions become more acceptable (and accessible, as the play stretches through World War II into the '70s), the world around him continues to judge him as a rebel. What's fascinating about Barker's sharply satirical prose and Romagnoli's direction is how this strong personality is used to make the rest of the world a constant reflection of its own nonsense: well-mannered Russian communists try to make Bela conform in the same Inquisition-like fashion as angry loyalists to the British Royal Air Force, the pompous politicians of Churchill's party, and even the neutral professors of a Budapest art school. No End Of Blame succeeds in making Bela the hero by pitting the world against his cartoons; even as his strongest supporters fade, like Bob Stringer, his editor at the Daily Mirror, and his one friend, Grigor Gabor runs off with his wife, Ilona, Bela's art -- thick lines blown up in the background -- stands for something truer than what it represents.

No End Of Blame also features a topnotch ensemble, a cast of thirteen who are capable of showing the broad changes from era to era in Bela's journey from idealism to suicide. Alex Draper is a standout as Bela, a man so wrapped up in himself that his treats his wife's affair with patient stoicism and his own critics with nonchalant dismissals, but he's well-assisted by Christopher Duva, who plays both his innocent friend, Grigor, and, later, the unctuous censor Frank Deeds, and people like Alex Cranmer and Peter B. Schmitz, who give substance to even tangential roles, like the two PCs who fish Bela out of the river after he jumps. In their hands, Barker's debate-heavy script becomes engaging, escaping the leadenness of other intellectual plays. They also manage to find the darkness behind the politeness and match drama to the exposition, without ever seeming to emote.

The emotion of No End Of Blame is all in the passion and the struggle for culture, but even those looking for standard physical drama will get caught up in the nuanced presentation by the Potomac Theatre Project. "Give us a pencil," cries Bela, as he passes the struggle on to another generation, but he should demand more. This play is worth so much more than a pencil.

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