Lights rise on a ravaged town at the end of World War I. Bodies litter the stage and an excitable young soldier named Grigor (David Barlow) enters . He quickly drops his weapon and digs a sketchbook out of his pack, eager to draw a young women he has stumbled upon. Grigor is soon joined by his best friend, a soldier/poet by the name of Bela Veracek (Alex Draper). The two grapple (literally and figuratively) over whether to sketch or ravage the poor young woman when they’re interrupted by the Hungarian army. In the moments that follow they are ordered to be executed for desertion or homosexuality, then rescued, then made the offer of having the commanding officer who ordered their execution killed. They also two break up as friends and make up again. This and more occurs within the first fifteen minutes and the break-neck pace never stops.
No End of Blame by Howard Barker kicks off the Potomac Theatre Project’s 30th season. The play, loosely inspired by the true life of political cartoonist Victor Weisz, perhaps tries to rush too much into the confines of this two hour and fifteen minute affair, following the fictional Bela from 1918 to 1975. Each scene occurs at a tipping point in Bela’s life: to stay in art school or to flee to Russia; to live under a censured regime or to head to Britain; to cave into the pressures and expectations of Churchill or to be exiled. The only trouble is we never arrive at any consensus. The lack of breathing room robs these shifts of all weight, leaving them to ring hollow as they rush past.
Draper’s Bela is a delight to watch as he goes from glee to sorrow to righteous indignation. When paired with Barlow’s Grigor (and later Deeds, a smarmy English bureaucrat), the two have a fascinating chemistry, whether allied or against one another. A peculiar choice was made on the part of the director Richard Romagnoli to use dialects in a haphazard fashion. In the first few scenes Bela and Grigor speak in a natural American accent, a scene later Bela adopts an eastern European accent at the Writers and Artists’ Institute of Moscow (all of whom gab in an easy American), once Bela arrives in London he recedes further into his European accent as the cast around him adopt more British tones. This muddies the narrative as it supports neither location nor point-of-view.
For a show so interested in the work of an artist we almost never see the artist at work. As we venture from Budapest to Moscow to Dover and to London, Bela waxes philosophical about the role of art and the difference between the cartoon “which changes the world” and the painting which “changes the artist.” His speech soars to Shakespearean heights as he grapples with political ideals but for all his preaching he hardly ever picks up his pencil to sketch. A mere five projections of Bela’s work appear (only his controversial works that are being censured) despite the play tracking fifty years of work. We’re told that his work is incisive and at times funny, but we only catch a glimpse of the cartoons he was reprimanded for.
Danielle Nieves’s costumes give a nice sense of geography by including smart Soviet uniforms and British bomber jackets; their silhouettes starkly cut out against the sparse black box locales designed by Mark Evancho. The live filming and projection of Bela’s meeting at the Writers and Artists’ Institute of Moscow offers a solution to some otherwise tricky staging on Romagnoli’s part, but is sadly never revisited.
As time marches on and the world turns mad at the beginning of the nuclear arms race, Bela’s ironclad ideals shatter around him. His work takes on a pessimistic tone. No longer interested in caricatures of Lenin or Churchill, he instead depicts the world shrouded in a looming mushroom cloud. But, as Barker tells us, in the end you can’t just call the world barmy, you’ve got to “[a]ssign the blame. It’s madness if you don’t.”