In British playwright Howard Barker’s “No End of Blame: Scenes of Overcoming” Bela (Alex Draper), a poet, begins his journey toward truth and freedom on the Hungarian battlefields at the end of WWI. By the time he is back in Budapest, at the Institute of Fine Art, Bela has renounced poetry and emerged as a gifted painter, a genius, the most talented in the school, with an ego to match. But Bela’s calling is not the brush; it is the pen. A political cartoonist, speaking truth to power, is what he is compelled to do. Consequences be damned.
Fanatical and driven, Bela produces an inflammatory cartoon that gets himself expelled not only from the art institute but also the country. Even his mentor Bilwitz (Jonathan Tindle, affecting and wonderful), who reveres Bela’s gifts but not his choice of application, can’t save him. No matter. Bela is ecstatic at the news. He will find freedom elsewhere.
Bela walks across the border to Russia with his long-time, long-suffering friend Grigor (David Barlow), a painter, and his girlfriend IIona (Stephanie Janssen). Here is where he believes he will find the freedom to make his political art. But after twelve years, in 1934, Russia is the land of Lenin, Stalin and the Russian Revolution gone wrong. It is not long before Bela comes to the attention of the government and an official government arts committee strongly recommends he compromise his vision – which, for once, he does. After an angry scene in the street, it is suggested he take a “vacation.” Bela is hell-bent on finding some place where freedom of expression truly exists, not for himself but for humanity; he rejects anyone who challenges his singular pursuit of truth and art, including Grigor, his now-wife IIona, and their daughter, Judith, all of whom he leaves behind.
When Bela lands in England, he kisses the ground. Freedom from tyranny at last! He is welcomed and employed at the Daily Mirror, until 1943, when he pisses off Churchill, and a smaller “committee” meeting follows. The British fussiness and tea service in this scene is hilarious, and David Barlow is just as shockingly good as Deeds, a twit of a bureaucrat, as he is with the sensitive, simple Grigor. By 1975, in England but soon to be out of a job, Bela has not found a place that gives him the freedom to make his political art. Everywhere he goes, he is kicked out for not towing the party line. He has managed to avoid prosecution at every turn, but he cannot avoid the ghosts of his past. His singular pursuit in the service of freedom for mankind comes with the price of isolation and a tortured soul.
In truth, Bela belongs nowhere. He embodies the artist’s eternal quest.
Barker’s play is one of the first PTP/NYC (Potomac Theatre Project), celebrating their 30th season, ever produced. To choose to revive it now was timely, for myriad reasons, and I could not help but think of Charlie Hebdo and the price those artists paid for freedom.
In order for this play to work and work well, Bela has to be perfectly cast. Onstage virtually the entire time, he has to be arrogant, yes, but sympathetic and charismatic. Alex Draper achieves this brilliantly. His Bela portrays why genius makes bad company: he is magnetic and maddening, talking and interrupting with no filter, telling people exactly what they don’t want to hear with no guile whatsoever. But when he recognizes Grigor in a London park, entirely transformed and broken, Bela breaks, too. Not for long, though. He has to protect what is in his great artist’s head. There is no room for anything, or anyone else.
Barker’s play is astonishing in both scope and structure. Director Richard Romagnoli is to be credited for his own vision, and clarity. “No End of Blame: Scenes of Overcoming” is not an easy play, and to be able to get the brutality of Barker as well as the emotional depth of the piece is something. And that ending is a wonder.
I can’t say enough about the dynamic, brilliant Potomac Theatre Project. Does it make a difference that these actors have known and worked with each other for years, and does that translate to the relationships onstage? Yes, it does. These actors are tremendous. They exude warmth and they shine with brilliance. All of them, including Christopher Marshall, Nicholas Hemerling, Jonathan Tindle, Christo Grabowski, the chameleon-like Valerie Leonard, Alexander Burnett, Steven Medina, Shannon Gibbs, Gabrielle Owens, and Ashley Michelle. Do they blow most of the thrown-together-to-look-like-a-family-but-I-don’t-believe-it-for-a-second Broadway plays out of the water? Yes, they do. And if I have not made it abundantly clear, you must go and see this difficult, wondrous, rewarding play, running till August 7th. PTP/NYC’s “No End of Blame: Scenes of Overcoming” is a superb realization of the power of theater.