Theater

Faustian Bargains: Revivals Explore Intellectual Temptation in Times of Historical Crisis

by

For its thirtieth repertory season, Potomac Theatre Project — a company that meets each summer on the Middlebury College campus to rehearse for its New York season — has chosen to revive Howard Barker’s No End of Blame and C.P. Taylor’s Good. Both are meditations on the role of artists and intellectuals in times of historical crisis, and although both plays premiered in 1981 and have been staged several times throughout PTP’s history, they remain remarkably pertinent today.

No End of Blame centers on the fictional cartoonist Bela Veracek through nearly six decades of global history, from the two World Wars through the 1970s, as he repeatedly runs afoul of state censors, first in his native Hungary, then in Soviet Russia, and finally in Great Britain. Although he refuses temptations to moderate his iconoclastic views at every step, the forces conspiring to crush his spirit pursue him doggedly into insanity and the madhouse. The play’s subtitle, “Scenes of Overcoming,” carries a darkly ironic tone, like much of the play itself.

In a similar vein, Good also tells a tale of temptation. Based loosely on the Faust myth, it follows German literary scholar John Halder as he sleepwalks into collaborating with the Nazis through the 1930s, even over the desperate protestations of his Jewish friend Maurice. A study in what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil,” Taylor’s play depicts Halder in the most unflattering light possible: as a spineless, deluded, self-excusing naïf whose daily refusal to reckon with the realities of life in Hitler’s Germany ultimately gives cover to Auschwitz and the gas chambers.

These are pessimistic plays, to be sure, but the productions brim with energy and humor. Both are staged simply, so that the focus stays on the texts and actors, who are impressive across the board. Company stalwart and associate artistic director Alex Draper infuses the character of Veracek with a vivid sense of pathos, while PTP newcomer Michael Kaye is pitch-perfect as the conflicted, myopic Halder, a man by turns grandiose, dignified, and befuddled.

Though timely, neither play is perfect. And while PTP’s dedication to canonical playwrights like Barker and Taylor is admirable, one does hope that its future seasons will include voices more directly in dialogue with the specific exigencies of our moment. Still, these productions issue a provocative call for vigilance, intellectual honesty, and commitment in an unsettling world. We’ll need all three in the days ahead.

No End of Blame / Good

By Howard Barker/C.P. Taylor

PTP/NYC (Potomac Theatre Project)

Atlantic Stage 2

330 West 16th Street

866-811-4111, potomactheatreproject.org

Through August 7

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