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In 1987, with the Reagan administration and Iran/Contra in full flower, Potomac Theatre Project blasted into town with two plays that all but exploded from the stage. I’d never heard of the British tyro Howard Barker, whose No End of Blame was one of them (the other being Daniel Berrigan’s The Trial of the Catonsville Nine), and I had rarely heard dialogue with so ferocious a mix of poetic fury and fierce humor. Though the performance I caught on a sweltering August night back then was attended by perhaps 10 people, I returned a week later to find a much fuller house, and over the next few summers (the troupe’s founders all work in academia), I came to regard hot weather as the time for a theater of ideas.
My pulse raced again this past weekend at PTP’s revival of No End of Blame, which examines, in a manner that seems no less fresh and surprising a quarter-century after it was penned, the insidious ways in which governments and economic forces interfere with freedom of expression. That this work should arrive just as the Bush administration is waging a PR battle to silence press criticism of its policies seems at once grotesque and entirely apt. The revival may be slightly less than ideal—the notion of having audience and actors sharing Olney Theatre’s stage while the auditorium sits empty is more interesting in theory than in practice—but Richard Romagnoli’s staging is angry, vibrant, and roughly twice as impassioned as most of what’s on local stages at present.
The evening begins on a corpse-strewn battlefield in World War I, where a sobbing woman is nearly raped by one soldier as she’s sketched by another. The would-be rapist is Bela Veracek (Paul Morella), a cartoonist-in-training who has no sooner returned from the front than he’s telling his art teacher that the very thought of drawing nudes and peasants in life-study classes makes him ill. “I hate oils, studios, manipulating colors inches thick. Give me ink, which dries quick, speaks quick…hurts.”
Thrilled to be expelled from art school when Budapest’s authorities take offense at his cartoons (“I stirred the police—therefore I touched the truth!”) he departs for Lenin’s revolution, taking with him his best buddy and a woman who’s enchanted when Bela responds to her fears about venturing into the chilly Russian winter without stockings by painting some on her legs.
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Does that seem a romantic gesture? Well, it’s not. Bela may champion the rights of the individual, but actual individuals don’t interest him nearly as much as the issues he dissects in his cartoons (represented on stage by scabrous line drawings by Gerald Scarfe, the artist who created the album cover for Pink Floyd’s The Wall and later designed the movie based on the album). Bela is his political statements; his relationships exist only to support his work. So when his cartoons lambasting what he belatedly realizes is a repressive Soviet regime run afoul of a Moscow artists’ collective—which struggles hilariously to find a friendly, encouraging, noncensorious, but nonetheless firm way of restraining him—he abandons his friends with barely a backward glance.
He heads for England, where he alarms customs officials by kissing the ground as fervently as he’d like to have kissed the uptight Soviet committee member who helped spirit him out of Moscow. Alas, his skepticism about Brit policies soon lands him in hot water with a World War II panel that threatens the newspaper he works for with closure.
Weathering that storm only exposes him to economic pressures a few years later, and weathering those leaves him howling in an asylum—ever the artist in pain, ever shrill (“I prefer shouting to whispering”), ever a thorn in the Establishment’s side, regardless of who the Establishment is. When young, he’s life-embracing, when old, he’s suicidal, but always he’s furious, politically engaged, and reaching for a pen.
It’s hard not to conflate this discontented character (modeled loosely on German cartoonist Victor Weisz) with the playwright who created him. Barker’s work is often concerned not just with social issues but also with the response they inspire in artists, be they painters (Scenes From an Execution), or architects (The Castle), or writers like himself. Barker has long been among England’s more controversial scolds—hugely popular on the continent but famous for biting the hand that feeds him at home. Just three years after the Royal Shakespeare Company celebrated his vivid writing with an all-Barker season at one of its stages, he permanently parted ways with the company over artistic differences.
The colorful rants in No End of Blame (“Do you want to drown on a thimbleful of lies pissed out the bladder of a landscape painter?”) make the protagonist pretty riveting, but Richard Romagnoli’s newly revelatory staging is designed to keep him infuriating as well. Bela may be right about art and even about ideology, but he’s a deliberately unsympathetic monster, arrogant in his pain, and Morella plays him ferociously, with nostrils flaring and chin covered with spittle.
Because Barker is the consummate devil’s advocate—Romagnoli delights in the play’s contradictory impulses—the supporting characters are rendered more empathetically than the protagonist, including the hatchet men who torment Bela across six decades. Richard Pilcher plays many of them and finds delicately compelling strategies for wrestling with the censorious job they do, having some of them rely on charm, others on ceremony, making some obtuse and peremptory, others sensitive and conflicted. Nigel Reed brings a similar variety to a raft of editors, airmen, and Party members who mostly defend Bela, while Helen Hedman unveils a separate sensuality for each of the women who briefly become Bela’s muse—a talkative model who bursts into tears, the diffident Party member who shrinks from his kiss, a chilly tea lady who melts at his touch, and a kind nurse who holds him as he cries.
Spare design choices and smart ensemble work from the Middlebury College students who round out the cast also contribute to an evening that is not only socially conscious but also functions as a social conscience. After an uneven opening scene, the show kept my pulse elevated for the better part of two hours—and reminded me why Potomac Theatre Project has seemed so indispensable for the better part of two decades.
It’s tempting to see Forum Theatre & Dance as a spiritual heir to PTP, though its mission has more to do with theatrical revolutions than political ones. Because the young troupe is drawn to the sort of absurdist material that allows it to stretch dramatic form, it often dabbles in satire, and in Václav Havel’s darkly hilarious bureaucratic farce The Memorandum, it’s doing more than dabbling.
The evening begins on a stage piled high with file cabinets, where a long-suffering supervisor (Sasha Olinick) tries to puzzle out a memo that appears to be nothing but a random sequence of letters. He soon discovers that his ambitious deputy (Alexander Strain) has directed that all office communications must henceforth be issued in a “synthetic language based on scientific principles” called Ptydepe. The aim of this language, created with so much redundancy that meanings will be self-evident, is to eliminate misunderstandings. But because no one can understand Ptydepe except the scientists who’ve created it, and because even getting a Ptydepe memo translated requires issuing a request in Ptydepe, havoc ensues. Act One is about the havoc itself, Act Two about heroic attempts to redress it, which naturally result in more havoc. Think The Office writ Orwellian, and you’ve about got the picture.
Havel, a Czech dissident when he wrote The Memorandum in 1965, would become that nation’s president 24 years later, at which point he would be as frustrated by entrenched bureaucracy as his protagonist is here. But his tone is light and sardonic as he details the travails of a hapless organization that’s none-too-gently grinding to a halt.
He was, of course, mocking a widely disgraced and imploding regime that was hellbent on staying in power regardless of the cost to its citizens. So it should come as no surprise that the play seems entirely apt in contemporary Washington. The notion of using language to manipulate and corrupt is one that will certainly resonate with folks who work a few blocks away on Capitol Hill, as well as with those of us who deal with the consequences.
Forum’s production—so deftly staged by the company’s artistic director, Michael Dove, that its punch lines often seem choreographed—is blessed with antic, uproariously physical performances, including a boffo one by Strain as the power-mad deputy who sets events in motion. The actor, attired in a crisp dark suit and wielding sarcasm as if it were a cudgel, is a delicious comic monster, batting away criticism and doubt as if he were swatting at gnats. The little grin Strain permits himself when sitting in his boss’s chair is priceless. Anyone who’s worked in an office knows—and loathes—someone just like him.
Equally recognizable are the chirpy secretary (Kate Debelack) who spends all her time combing her hair, the factotum (Jesse Terrill) who obsequiously, and in this case, without ever opening his mouth, supports his boss’s every utterance. Also the peremptory manager (Rose McConnell) who doesn’t seem to do anything at all, the slovenly tech guy (Jason Linkins) who lives for lunch, the patronizing instructor (Brent Lowder) who presides over employee training with a creepy smile, and the overburdened drone (Maggie Glauber) who actually keeps the office functioning.
Dove orchestrates movement in the staging—someone is forever passing behind the principals, often with bags of limes, or onions, or a fire extinguisher tucked under an arm—in ways that emphasize the absurdity in the everyday. And while Havel has provided a twist or two too many in an evening that’s all about excess, in a production that’s as much fun as this one, I suspect most patrons will regard that not as self-indulgence but as generosity.CP