by Howard Barker
Directed by Richard Romagnoli
Featuring Alex Draper, David Barlow, Valerie Leonard
Potomac Theatre Project / NYC at Atlantic Stage 2
July 5, 2016 – August 7, 2016
The second revival in Potomac Theatre Project’s repertory pair currently running at Atlantic Stage 2 is a wildly successful metaphorical, artistic, political romp through twentieth-century history by PTP favorite playwright Howard Barker. Symbolism and realism merge in the body of several artists including hero Bela (the delectable Alex Draper), a political cartoonist who observes, is judged by, and ultimately survives social and political events stretching from the First World War in the Carpathian mountains to the grounds of a hospital six decades later.
In this intriguing piece partnered with Good, a play from the 1980s set in 1930s Germany that examines a single man’s transformation under the rise of National Socialism from a gentle academic to a monster in a pressed uniform and a Heil Hitler salute. In No End of Blame, we first encounter Bela as a bedraggled soldier with his friend artist Grigor (David Barlow) who only wants to sketch. Bela is on the verge of raping a woman but is prevented from doing so by the war’s end. From this first encounter with his worst human instincts, we follow Bela for decades, staying true to his artistic self as different governments and different contexts attempt to repress him. The drama for him and for us is to observe how political regimes and the people who run them grapple with the rigid core of his beliefs.
The multiply-cast balance of this ensemble creates a riveting swirl of action and scenes, each redolent with power, most illuminated with Bela’s sketches. Sometimes he is asked to explain his art to the assembled group (as in the scene captured in the image at the top of this review) and sometimes he engages in debates with his editors, usually arguing that his art speaks for itself. David Barlow as a Russian official in one of those interrogation scenes and as Bela’s wartime buddy stands out among the terrific ensemble of actors, as does the marvelous Valerie Leonard who plays a full-bodied and powerful art student model Stella as well as assorted comrades and workers.
The marvelous production design (set by Mark Evancho, lighting by Hallie Zieselman and especially projections by Gerald Scarfe) brings us in swiftly transforming scenes to a close examination of an artist who stays true to his art while the world shifts around him. At one moment we’re in a battle field in 1918, at another a Moscow art institute in 1925 then an airfield hut in 1943 England, London newspaper offices in the 1960s, and a final hospital grounds. This is efficient and powerful design work all around.
Director Richard Romagnoli‘s choice to have Bela dressed in essentially the same clothing throughout the play, as well as NOT aging the character through makeup over sixty years, seemed at first glance a misstep. Upon reflection, this choice seems precisely on point with the play’s theme of artistic ethics and staying true to heart and art despite external pressures of many kinds. This is a triumph of style meeting substance.
© Martha Wade Steketee (July 22, 2016)
Playwright | Howard Barker
Director | Richard Romagnoli
Set Design | Mark Evancho
Lighting | Hallie Zieselman
Sound Design | Seth Clayton
Costume Design | Danielle Nieves