The audacious opening scene of "No End of Blame: Scenes of Overcoming" covers more ground than most writers dare in an entire play. In its abundance of energy and conviction, it introduces Washington to an extraordinary playwright, British writer Howard Barker, and heralds the remarkable debut of the Potomac Theatre Project at the Castle Arts Center.
Ranging over seven decades and nearly as many countries, Barker's drama speaks sharply -- shouts, in fact -- about the illusion of individual freedom under any form of government, and questions the responsibility of the artist, specifically the political cartoonist, whose humble line has the power to amuse and enlighten the masses while enraging their leaders.
Barker introduces his cartoonist protagonist, blunt-spoken Bela Verachek (loosely based on Hungarian cartoonist Victor Weisz), in that first scene, a swift series of startling images that puts the audience immediately off-balance, unsure whether to laugh or recoil in horror. As Russian and Hungarian troops clash in the Carpathian mountains at the close of World War I, young Hungarian artist Grigor Gabor is oblivious to the corpses strewn about as he rapidly sketches a hysterical seminude woman, who shrieks in terror and incomprehension. His friend Bela appears and impulsively decides to rape the woman, hastily disrobing before he is violently prevented by Grigor. The naked Bela is surprised by soldiers, taunted with accusations of homosexuality, and is just about to be executed when -- suddenly -- the war ends.
The production is driven by the magnetic performance of Robert Emmet as Bela. Simultaneously attractive and repulsive, arrogant and humble, Emmet refuses to canonize the character, and in a nice stylistic touch his Hungarian accent deepens the farther Bela strays from his birthplace.
The second of the play's 12 scenes finds him in a Budapest art school, where he is soon rebelling against the prescribed notion of the artist as "guardian of beauty." He decides to emigrate to "the future" -- Russia -- and appoints himself the responsibility of delineating the truth as he sees it. But he constantly finds truth "redefined" to justify any number of ideologies.
In Moscow, when one of his cartoons is openly critical of Lenin's "great experiment," Bela is summoned before a bumbling committee of art bureaucrats, who even as they assure him that they're trying to create an art "free of bourgeois constraints" attempt to enlist him as a mouthpiece for the state. Here Barker engineers a brilliantly comic knot of doublethink for Bela to slice through with his stubborn silence.
Disillusioned, he flees to England, where he finds that the face of the censor wears a genial smile and offers a cup of tea. Speaking brusquely before a group of RAF flyers, he says: "I am a cartoonist. I believe the cartoon to be the lowest form of art. I also believe it to be the most important form of art. I decided in my 24th year I would rather be important than great. I decided this because I have always preferred shouting to whispering, and humanity more than myself . . . The cartoon is celebrated in a million homes. The painting is worshiped in a gallery. The cartoon changes the world. The painting changes the artist. I long to change the world. I hate the world. Thank you."
Barker eventually draws Bela into the '70s, where his progressively darkening visions scrape against the age's comfortable ignorance and political anesthesia, and the London daily that employs him conspires to rid itself of the "depressing" artist and replace him with a politically toothless hack. Here we catch a glimpse of Bela's final cartoon, a dire sketch of the apocalypse, captioned: "They grew tired of thought."
Barker's strong message and vivid, often abrasive language are matched by his flair for striking, efficient stage imagery. Yet the play's dauntingly dense compression of history and Bela's frequent bouts of rhetoric might be dramatic quicksand without director Richard Romagnoli's playfully sardonic touches. He prompts detailed work in even the smallest role in the large cast, and guides the actors ably through several tricky changes of accent.
Complementing Emmet's work are performances by Mary Chalon, who is superb in four widely divergent roles; and Alan Wade, who shows a broad range and deft humor in his three parts. Jim Beard, whose comic characterizations were allowed to grow overly familiar at the Folger Theater, comes up with fine, restrained work here, and Laura Giannarelli is quite touching in her brief appearance as Bela's wife Ilona. Romagnoli has cast several young actors, some from Middlebury College and Catholic University, and is rewarded with impressive turns by David Conaway, Alexander Draper, Lynn Hawley and Richard Thompson.
The production is enhanced by projections of the original political cartoons created for the 1981 London production by Gerald Scarfe and Clare Shenstone, and Chandler A. Potter's stark wood-planked set makes good use of the Castle's stone rear wall.
The Potomac Theatre Project was formed by a triumvirate of producing directors -- Cheryl Faraone, James Petosa and Romagnoli -- all of whom started out in Washington before launching the New York Theatre Studio, where they amassed an impressive body of work. With their welcome return to Washington, they have set as their goal, quoting American Repertory Theatre director Robert Brustein, "to illuminate the nightmares and hoaxes by which we live."
It's a bold, even grandiloquent, statement. But "No End of Blame" lives up to it. And if Potomac Theatre Project continues to select and produce plays of this caliber, it is on the way to fulfilling its mandate.
No End of Blame: Scenes of Overcoming, by Howard Barker. Directed by Richard Romagnoli. Setting, Chandler A. Potter; lighting and sound, David R. Zemmels; costumes, Gail Stewart Beach. With Jim Beard, Matthew Allen Bretz, Mary Chalon, David Conaway, Dana Cormier, Alexander Draper, Robert Emmet, Laura Giannarelli, Lynn Hawley, Patrick Kennedy, Richard Thompson, Alan Wade, Solange Weinberger. Performed by the Potomac Theatre Project at Castle Arts Center, alternating with "Trial of the Catonsville Nine" through Aug. 30.