“…Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” (Dylan Thomas.)
Grigor (David Barlow), a battleworn, Hungarian foot soldier in World War I, comes upon a field strewn with bodies. Suddenly one moves. A woman, back to us, struggles to her feet-filthy, whimpering, abused, naked from the waist up. Ecstatic, he kneels- in order to sketch her! (We see the page on a screen.) “Where are you?!” he cries to his comrade Bela (Alex Draper.) “…I’m so sick of drawing men…Look at her breasts, her buttocks!..” Bela has other ideas. Exhausted and salivating, he starts to undress. Grigor prevents the rape, then drapes his friend across a corpse for another drawing. Gotcha.
Front-Jonathan Tinder, Alex Draper. background: Stephen Medina, Alexander Burnett
In short shrift, the men are cornered by Russians, accused of homosexuality and threatened with death. To prove himself an artist, Bela is commanded to create a poem. Literary ‘adjustments’ by the sadistic, foreign officer offend him. Revenge might be irrational, but it’s satisfying. Grigor is horrified. Bela shoots into the sky, returning appalled with himself. We’ve learned a great deal about the two men and the era in which they live as well as experiencing a bait and switch.
It’s not until the second scene at The Institute of Fine Art in Budapest, it dawns that our hero is not Grigor. Bela, the blue-eyed boy of his peers, eschews painting for cartooning. While his friend is a traditionalist who waxes poetic about women’s bodies, Bela declares, “Give me ink which dries fast!” The caption of his first commandeered cartoon reads: We will revive the spirit of Hungary! The government doesn’t approve. Expelled, the two men and Bela’s lover Ilona (Stephanie Janssen), emigrate to Moscow. “I will find you nudes,” he promises his reticent friend.
David Barlow, Alex Draper
A committee at the Writers’ and Artists’ Institute in Moscow (1925) objects to Bela’s political leanings while praising his work in honeyed terms. They’re collectively sure he’ll bow in the service of the people. Rationalization is universal, timeless, insidious. The beautifully executed scene finds its bureaucrats-in-denial with their backs to us, facing a screen on which we see the objectionable cartoons. (Excellent drawings by Gerald Scarfe, resemble those of Ralph Steadman. They’re minimal, active, angry, and telling.)
Front-Alexander Burnett, Valerie Leonard, Christopher Marshall, Christo Grabowski; Back-Alex Draper & Jonathan Tindle
Bela flees Russia for England, while Grigor and Ilona stay behind, taking to the woods in hope of a peaceful family life. The artist enters his new home with an empty suitcase kissing the ground at Dover. Fortunately, his reputation appears to have preceded him. Work is secured. Bela is appreciated. He has no personal life. Years pass. Glimpses of character are like haikus.
In a speech offering cultural respite to a group of World War II RAF pilots, our hero states that he believes the cartoon to be the lowest and more important kind of art. “Important art is about us. Great art is about me (the artist.)” The so-called lecture is brief but perfect; its staging effectively immersive. (Alas, the overacting of younger company members limits impact.) History repeats itself when Churchill objects to Bela’s art. Grigor shows up in London. Both men suffer in extreme the results of repression. We end in 1975.
Loosely based on the celebrated German political cartoonist, Victor Weisz (1913-1966), No End of Blame is a story of ever present censorship, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Its protagonist, Bela Veracek is in perpetual search of artistic freedom. In three countries, he maintains democratic independence until political environment no longer permits.
Christopher Marshall, Alex Draper , background- David Barlow, Jonathan Tindle
The anti-Nazi Weisz fled Germany for England where he astonishingly managed to express himself without being impeded at Liberal, Labour and Conservative newspapers. Depressive and volatile, he eventually committed suicide. This ends without that tragedy, but not for lack of trying. That scene is again, splendidly staged, though the succeeding one in an asylum is confusing.
A play by Howard Barker, like a gourmet meal, is challenging, eloquent, original, sometimes raw, occasionally over rich, and always worth the experience. The darkest subjects are approached not only with wide-reaching intelligence, but also pithy sexuality and intermittent humor-both unerringly effective.
Symposia on his work have been mounted at prestigious universities. Actors from The Royal Shakespeare Company and The Royal Court formed The Wrestling School- its name indicating that that the audience must wrestle with the authors ideas, a company devoted solely to producing his extensive oeuvre. The Potomac Theatre has had a long and fruitful relationship with Barker. Through their presentations I learned about and became an avid follower of the playwright.
Once again, Associate Artistic Director, Alex Draper (Bela) is terrific in an unremittingly complex role. He commands the stage with gusto, focus, and nuance. Accent is impeccable. The actor is as physically riveting as he is emotionally palpable- here arrogant, shy, seething, passionate, lost.
David Barlow admirably embodies Grigor, showing sensitivity and tenderness Bela will never experience. A scene where the shredded character is approached by Bela in a London park, is deftly portrayed.
Stephanie Janssen is sympathetic and credible as Ilona. Jonathan Tindle has some fine, officious, blindered moments
Of the company, the stand-out is Christopher Marshall who inhabits every one of his numerous roles with naturalness, presence, and adroit characterization.
Director and company Co-Artistic Director, Richard Romagnoli, has done a superb job. Some staging highlights are mentioned above. Official confrontations do not, as they might, emerge formulaic. The production is all but without set, yet characters always seem to ‘be’ where described. Use of projection is impactful. Pacing is excellent. One only wishes younger company members could be restrained and that accents were more consistent.
Sound Design by Seth Clayton is top tier whether music, voice, or effect.
Danielle Nieves’s Costume Design is exactly right from rags to Klimt robes to uniforms.
Photos by Stan Barough
Opening: Alex Draper ; Illustration by Gerald Scarfe