- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 2, 2006

Terrorists may have bombs, but political cartoonists have a lethal weapon of their own — the pen. A small, square box is their battlefield, as they rail against injustice, cruelty and oversized egos, using exaggeration and bold pen strokes to point up the pinheadedness of mankind.

The power and provocation of the political cartoonist is scrutinized in Howard Barker’s vituperative, dense play, “No End of Blame: Scenes of Overcoming,” first produced as part of the Potomac Theatre Project in its inaugural 1987 season.

Hungarian doodler Bela Veracek (Paul Morella), loosely based on the real-life German cartoonist Victor Weisz, is the personification of how artists have been worshipped, vilified and suppressed throughout history.

Artists are condemned for what they see, and Veracek sees with a monstrously exacting eye, which allows him to draw brilliantly but live in the world with the greatest of unease. The play begins shockingly, as Veracek and fellow artist Grigor Gabor (Rishabh Kashyap) chance upon an older peasant woman they find wandering amid the carnage of World War I. Veracek wants to rape her; Gabor wants to sketch her. Both are keen on callously exploiting her for their own needs.

The play jumps to an art school in Budapest, where Veracek rebels against the staid academy in his desire to be a cartoonist — which, he says, is the lowest and most important form of art. “It speaks quick, dries quick,” he says. He travels to Moscow in 1923 in the heady early days of communist idealism, before bureaucracy and agitprop took hold. From there, Veracek escapes to England and becomes the impudent darling of Fleet Street with his blazing invectives against Hitler. However, when Veracek turns his acid pen to Churchill and the British government, he’s seen as an unpatriotic threat to the nation’s security.

Sound familiar?

As directed by Richard Romagnoli, “No End to Blame” is presented as a series of short, blunt sketches charting Veracek’s rise and fall in his quest to get people to see the awful truth in the world and in themselves. But, as he finds, many people don’t want to be set free, instead preferring the comfortable confines of complacency and illusion.

The first act, especially, can be as frustrating as trying to explain Dadaism to your cat, as the play jump-cuts from country and decade without much context or continuity. A cast of eight portrays an often anonymous lot of characters, and even changes of costumes and accents are not helpful in telling them apart. Many scenes also are bogged down by the sort of stasis and loggy rhetoric that political cartoonists like Veracek found loathsome in the first place.

The acting also careens between merely adequate to the kind of scenery-chewing that’s a bit frightening in such an intimate space. Helen Hedman contributes an array of characters, ranging from an iron-countenanced Comrade to a knowing tea-cart lady, with delicate deftness. Newcomer Jeanne LaSala makes a striking impression as a resigned Soviet wife and other cameo roles, while veterans Nigel Reed and Richard Pilcher bring an inspired, music-hall energy to a second act scene where they play two river guards forced to contend with a suicidal Veracek.

“No End of Blame: Scenes of Overcoming” may not hold the same bombast it did nearly 20 years ago, but the drama still possesses the ability to needle, as well as deliver a scathing statement about the way we treat artists.

**

WHAT: “No End of Blame: Scenes of Overcoming” by Howard Barker

WHERE: Olney Theater Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney

WHEN: Running in repertory with “An Experiment with an Air Pump” through July 23 as part of the Potomac Theatre Project

TICKETS: $15

PHONE: 301/924-3400

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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