Photo by Stan Barouh
Alex Draper as Bela Veracek in No End of Blame
Reviewed by Cindy Pierre
Is art meant to serve society, or is it a vehicle to serve the arrogance of the artist? Or, can it be both? Dramatist and Poet Howard Barker tackles this philosophical argument with tenacity and intelligence in No End of Blame, the Potomac Theatre Project's latest New York production. It is a topic that is intrinsic to Barker, having devoted a large part of his body of work to the understanding of how art is forged and the factors of its composition. For Barker, pain is a necessity to art, a manufacturer as well as an extension cord, and Bela Veracek (an excellent Alex Draper), the protagonist of No End of Blame, does not escape this paradigm.
Loosely based on German cartoonist Victor Weisz, Veracek has endured all and seen all, accompanied for the better part of his journey by Grigor Gabor (the magnanimous and skillful Christopher Duva, reminiscent of Scottish actor Kevin McKidd). The opening of the play explodes with the conclusion of combat, but not the conclusion of callousness and depravity. It is here that we are first exposed to the comrades, bound by the love of artistic expression and the rigors of war. Although the identification of the lead character is not immediate in this scene, both characters frame their proceedings well, Veracek as desperate and Gabor as restrainer. While neither exhibits the proper conduct, with Gabor drawing a nude, Romanian captive and Veracek attempting to rape her, together, they manage to help each other retain humanity.
Brilliantly directed by Richard Romagnoli, the show uses multimedia components such as film reels to condense the multiple settings (the Carpathian mountains, Budapest, Moscow, London) that span over 50 years, and to display both the caustic cartoons of Veracek (Gerald Scarfe) and the preferred drawings of Gabor (Clare Shenstone). After being expelled from art school, Veracek leaves Gabor behind to embark on his quest for societal unrest and blaze his trail as a nihilist. Veracek soon learns that nihilism is hard, lonely work.
Sharp, witty and purpose-driven, Barker's dialogue is as thrilling as the turmoil on Veracek's face and person. In the face of opposition from newspapers, organizations, and friends, he is fearless and relentless. His critics dare him to not only fight complacency in Europe, but to tell the full, raw truth. For his cartoons are poignant, but generalized, centered on the broad issues but not divulging of anything new. For them, Veracek not only had a responsibility to denounce the war, but he also needed to expound on the smaller scale, the soldiers and their families, etc. They urged Veracek to surpass critiquing and assign the blame. That, in turn, would give rise to the real revolution when the people “grew tired of thought”, and were compelled to act.
The supporting ensemble is fantastic, lending skepticism and hilarity to Veracek's pursuits. Megan Byrne, similar in technique and appearance to actress Patricia Clarkson, is inspired in her four roles, from decadent Stella to the unpredictable Tea Lady. Although Veracek and Gabor do not age sufficiently in appearance for the half-century time frame, the actors wax poetically with wisdom and experience garnered with time.
Art, although deliberated over for centuries, is a difficult concept to define. It is not solely a means to be free or a means to be accountable. Neither one can be divorced from the other. Even in Veracek's tirades against greatness over importance, there is hubris. The proclaimed ability to reproduce beauty or what is extraordinary is itself, arrogant. The role of the artist is one loaded with obligations to society, but it is through self-service that he or she is engendered. Veracek experiences both tangible war with World War I and internal war with his emotions. It is a beautiful, tragic war that this production handles with pride and soul.
Through July 13th. TICKETS: $18, 1-800-838-3006. Atlantic Stage 2: 330 West 16th Street, New York, NY 10011