Freedom Sketcher

According to Oscar Wilde, "The best government for artists is no government at all." British playwright Howard Barker's No End of Blame investigates whether all institutions make artistic freedom impossible. Produced by the Potomac Theater Project at the Atlantic Theater 2, this series of "scenes of overcoming" follows a freedom-seeking political cartoonist across Europe and the 20th century. Bela "Vera" Veracek, transparently based on a real, Eastern European-born British cartoonist, Victor "Vicky" Weisz, searches doggedly for a place to work and publish in freedom. Written in 1981, the play seems hardly to have aged, given recent censorship controversies—over the murder of Russian journalist Anna Politskaya, the Danish cartoons depicting Muhammad, and, in Barker's Britain, Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell's drawing of an Israeli politician eating a baby. For example, Veracek is told he can't caricature Winston Churchill because Churchill is "a god."

Elsewhere, Barker uses Veracek to criticize the covert censorship that many artists believe is disguised as development and education programs. Veracek visibly cringes as a smiling Soviet censor's board promises "to help rescue artists from their bourgeois habits" because "all artists grow enormously when they share ideas."

No End of Blame is one of two mainstage plays presented by the Washington, D.C.-based Potomac Theater Project in this summer's New York season. It is directed by Richard Romagnoli, who also directed the company's 2006 D.C. production of No End of Blame starring acclaimed actor Paul Morelli. As Veracek, Alex Draper fills Morelli's shoes impressively. He presents a complex, self-contradictory character, most brash when he is also clearly most afraid.

As Veracek's friend and opposite, the art-schooled, line-toeing painter Grigor Gabor, Christopher Duva is mouselike in both his tone of voice and his body language. The 11 actors in the ensemble work cohesively, playing a staggering range of characters, and accents, with schizophrenic ease.

The set is dominated by a huge projection screen, on which we see Veracek's and Gabor's drawings. "Veracek's," which are really by cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, are bold, often physically distorted figures with deep shadows and striking chiaroscuro, often with tiny eyes and screaming mouths. "Gabor's" (by Clare Shenstone) are appropriately technically precise but soulless.

The costumes, designed by Catherine Vigne, are simple but serviceable. They suggest the play's many eras, from 1918 through the 1970s, without making it look like a period piece.

Veracek's personality, as opposed to his art, is a dated cliché of the artistic rebel. His first iconoclastic act is to attempt to rape a traumatized civilian woman whom Gabor is trying to draw. This foreshadows Veracek's confrontational cartoons and his search for a libertarian society with a truly free press. However, it is still the old Romantic genius, for whom individual expression and feeling are everything and non-artists don't much matter.

At some moments, the production seems to raise controversial points, then retreats into the safety of silence. In one World War II "Veracek" cartoon, a British soldier is being strangled by a fat, bald man with a thin black mustache and pound notes sprouting from his pockets. Not merely a critique of capitalism and war, this image is strongly suggestive of the "war profiteers" (often explicitly foreign and Jewish) that were the butt of British editorial cartoons dating back to World War I. Must a "free" press publish this in order to be truly free? The play does not broach those issues.

Still, No End of Blame makes the audience think. Reduced in his old age and exile to "painting by numbers," Gabor concedes that this is "difficult." In staging this ambitious and provocative play, Romagnoli and the Potomac Theater Project adamantly refuse to paint by numbers.

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