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A CurtainUp Review
Potomac Theatre Project: Good & No End of Blame
By Charles Wright

Redeem the times! The times are inexpressibly evil. And yet, and yet, the times are inexhaustibly good, solaced by the courage and hope of many. — Daniel Berrigan, Trial of the Catonsville Nine<
PTP/NYC, a theater company that takes to heart Father Daniel Berrigan's imperative to "redeem the times" (quoted above), is observing its 30th anniversary. The adventurous troupe, known as The Potomac Theatre Project before its 2007 relocation to New York City, is celebrating this milestone year with a summer repertory season of Howard Barker's No End of Blame and C.P. Taylor's Good. Both plays are ripe for New York revival, and PTP is the ideal organization to spur reappraisals.

Headquartered at Middlebury College in Vermont, PTP/NYC was founded by Middlebury professors Cheryl Faraone and Richard Romagnoli and by Jim Petosa of Boston University (all of whom are still on hand). The company presents formidable productions of difficult dramas that have timely social and political themes. PTP/NYC's productions feature a combination of seasoned professionals and young performers (some of whom gain their Actors Equity cards through their association with PTP).

This is the fourth time PTP/NYC has mounted a production of No End of Blame. Barker's bleak, often funny drama was the company's inaugural production in 1987; it's also the work with which PTP/NYC introduced itself to New York audiences in 2007.

Stephanie Janssen & Alex Draper (Photo: Stan Brough)
No End of Blame concerns a political cartoonist, Bela (Alex Draper), who clashes with editors and government officials wherever he goes, from Hungary in World War One to the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin and, finally, Britain, where he lives and works until 1973. Barker's 1981 play is a theatrical cartoon, with Bela the only round or detailed character in the script and the others drawn largely in acidic caricature. The play's subtitle is Scenes of Overcoming; as that suggests, the narrative is an episodic account of Bela's half-century odyssey in both communist and democratic societies, which the author and his protagonist find equally blameworthy.

Alex Draper, who was Bela in New York with PTP in 2007, reprises the role forcefully, even fiercely, and with depth of understanding. He's supported by 12 capable actors who lend interest and piquancy to their single-dimensioned characters. All members of the cast play multiple roles, except Draper and Stephanie Janssen, who plays Bela's love interest. All the doubling is done with aplomb; but Christopher Marshall, David Barlow, Valerie Leonard, and JonathanTindle demonstrate notable versatility from role to role.

In No End of Blame, as in the more endearing Scenes from an Execution (which PTP presented last summer), Barker employs historical settings to address timeless themes: the conflict between artists and government, the value of outsiders' voices in politics and culture, and the ongoing disparity in social and political power of the sexes.

Barker has famously commented that it's not his aim to entertain audiences. In his view, "a good play puts the audience through a certain ordeal." Romagnoli's direction minimizes that ordeal. He and his actors keep Barker's long, often didactic text moving at an admirably swift clip, avoiding tedium and the trap of seeming over-talky.

Michael Kaye (Photo: Stan Brough)
Good is an effective companion piece for No End of Blame. The play was a triumph for the Royal Shakespeare Company and classical actor Alan Howard in London in 1981; but it was less successful the next year in New York, where Frank Rich complained that it "doesn't add anything to the generalities of the past."

In the early 1980s, Taylor's choice to chronicle an ostensibly good man's activities as a member of the Third Reich in a play with frisky songs and bits of comedy was unorthodox. Thirty-five years later, that choice fits comfortably with a popular aesthetic of irony and snark; and the Brechtian detours in Taylor's script seem more insightful than audacious now.

The central role of John Halder, a gentile professor of literature who follows orders to confiscate and burn Nazi-disapproved books and ends up an official at Auschwitz, is complex and perplexing. Michael Kaye rises to the challenges presented by a character who's stymied by being of two (or more) minds throughout the play.

Halder's conflicting perspectives are dramatized in scenes with his Jewish friend Maurice (Tim Spears), his extravagantly neurotic wife (Valerie Leonard), his decrepit mother (Judith Chaffee), and the reality-denying student who becomes his lover (Caitlin Rose Duffy). Under the guidance of director Petosa, Kaye — assisted greatly by his fine fellow actors — creates a credible portrait of a man who believes he's good but contributes willingly to unspeakably bad things.

Scenic designer Mark Evancho and lighting designer Hallie Zieselman take advantage of every inch of tiny Atlantic Stage 2 by keeping scenery to a minimum and using variations in light and shadow to evoke a variety of locations and chart passing time. Seth Clayton's sound design lends an appropriate carnival atmosphere to the vaudevillian interpolations that temper what's tragic and melodramatic in Taylor's script.

Bringing the plays of its favored playwrights (Barker, Taylor, Caryl Churchill, and Harold Pinter, for instance) to New York again and again, PTP/NYC asserts the enduring quality of the plays it revives and their relevance to changing times. The company also recognizes the capacity of its actors to perform with ever greater insight and perspective as they revisit these texts. And it affirms the existence of intelligent audiences who value theater as a serious matter and not merely amusement. In all of this, PTP sounds more like a symphony orchestra than any North American theater company that comes to mind..

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In repertory: Good by C.P. Taylor & No End of Blame by Howard Barker
Directors: Jim Petosa (Good) & Richard Romagnoli (No End of Blame)
Cast for Good: Noah Berman (Bok/Hitler), Judith Chafee (Halder’s Mother), Caitlin Rose Duffy (Anne), Jess Garlick (Doctor/Dispatch Rider), Christo Grabowski (Freddie), Michael Kaye (John Halder), Valerie Leonard (Helen), Adam Ludwig (Bouller/Eichmann), Tim Spears (Maurice), Amanda Whiteley (Elizabeth/Sister); )
Cast for No End of Blame: David Barlow (Grigor/Deeds), Alexander Burnett (Hungarian Soldier/Art Student/3rd Comrade/Airman/Nurse/Customs Officer), Alex Draper (Bela), Christo Grabowski (Art Student/Airman/5th Comrade/Red Soldier/GPU Man), Shannon Gibbs (Airl/Art Student/Gardner/Airwoman/Nurse), Nicholas Hemerling (Mic/Strubenzee/Art Student/Red Soldier/), Stephanie Janssen (Ilona), Valerie Leonard (Stella/Tea Lady/Doctor Glasson/4th Comrade), Christopher Marshall (2nd Comrade/Stringer/Dockerill/Airman), Stephen Medina (Hungarian Soldier/Art Student/Airman/Customs Officer/ Nurse), Ashley Michelle (Art Student/Gardner/Airwoman/Diver’s Secretary/Nurse), Gabrielle Owens (Art Student/Gardner/Airwoman//Nurse), and Jonathan Tindle (Hungarian Officer/Diver/1st Comrade/Hoogstraten/Lowry/Bilwitz)
Scenic Design: Mark Evancho
Costume Design: Jessica Vankempen (Good) & Danielle Nieves (No End of Blame
Lighting Design: Hallie Zieselman
Sound Design: Seth Clayton
Production Stage Managers: Evangeline Rose Whitlock (Good, Eric Marlin (No End of Blame
Running Time: Each play is two hours, 15 minutes, with one intermission
Produced by PTP/NYC (Potomac Theatre Project
Atlantics Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street
Opened 7/12/16 (Good), 7/13/16 (No End of Blame); closing 8/6/16 (Good), 8/7/16 (No End of Blame
Reviewed by Charles Wright at July 10th press performances

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