New Rep's "Brecht on Brecht": Alien Nation

Matthew Stern (piano), Carla Martinez, Brad Daniel Peloquin, Jake Murphy, Christine Hamel
in "Brecht on Brecht"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

The 1961 off-Broadway revue with music, Brecht on Brecht, translated and arranged by George Tabori, surely is ripe for a revival by New Rep's Artistic Director Jim Petosa. It's a worthy inclusion in its series of “Prophetic Portraits”, with its obvious resonance in today's political climate. Bertolt Brecht, pacifist playwright, poet and theatrical director renowned for his political and social activism, is also known for his body of work against oppression in all its guises. Thus this compilation couldn't have been more prophetic given the present pathetic state of the union. Brecht, who ultimately fled Hitler's regime, had developed in Berlin his concept of non-linear “Epic theater” that should alter an audience's consciousness about scientific, political, and social issues. It could now also be seen as epoch theater, that spoke then and continues to speak now. Ironically, he would subsequently flee America as well when the House Un-American Activities Committee evolved with its own brand of oppression, and returned back to Berlin in 1949 where he would found the Berliner Ensemble with his wife actress Helene Weigel. Much of his work forms the forbidding framework for Brecht on Brecht with some occasional music by his collaborators Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler.

For some idea of the parallel universes of two political administrations, Germany then and America now, consider the following excerpts: “from political ignorance is born...the worst thief of all, the bad politician, corrupted, and flunky of the national and multinational companies”; “things will improve for us...I don't ask when”; or “would it not be simpler if the government simply dissolved the people?”. He proposed some responses, illustrated here in excerpts from The Parable of the Burning House (“we should cultivate the art of non-tolerance”), Some Stories about Herr Kauner (“there is only one way to fight authority...outlive it”), To the Next Generation (“pay evil back with good...that is what wisdom is”) and Bad Times (“the revolt will be made by people who happen to be there”). There is also a (too-lengthy) scene from A Jewish Wife about saying goodbye to oblivious friends and family in which Brecht echoed a familiar Orwellian theme (from Animal Farm) that is particularly relevant today: “there are worthy people and less worthy people”. Equally chilling, from Arturo Ui: “If you could learn to look instead of gawking, you'd see the horror in the heart of farce...though the world stood up and stopped the bastard (Hitler), the bitch that bore him is in heat again”. And some solace in the Song of the Moldau: “the great won't stay great long; the small won't stay small...the night has twelve hours, then comes the day”.

It would have been easy (and disastrous) to present this piece with a wink-wink, nudge-nudge approach that would have diminished its power by overdoing the obvious. Wisely, Director Petosa and his cast of four have held true to Brecht's view that “art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it”, and his adjunct belief: “In the dark times, will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.” Brecht, as mentioned in the program notes for the revue, felt that illusion is successful when partial, meaning it becomes recognizable as an illusion and, by revealing the elements of the stage and keeping actors slightly removed from their characters, creates Verfremdungseffekt , usually translated as an alienation effect, but perhaps better as “distancing effect”. The audience would lose their perspective if they were to completely suspend belief in the theatre, hence this production's breaking of the fourth wall and in-your-face acknowledgment of needing more lighting for a scene. Brecht's work is nothing if not a didactic polemic, but it's a good deal more than that in the capable hands of the Mature Woman (Christine Hamel), Mature Man (Brad Daniel Peloquin), Young Woman (Carla Martinez) and Young Man (Jake Murphy). Each gets her or his turn to shine in the spotlight. As do the Music Direction and piano accompaniment by Matthew Stern, simple Scenic Design by Ryan Bates, appropriately tattered Costume Design by Alyssa Korol and striking Lighting Design by Bridget K. Doyle.

This production will challenge theatergoers, in refreshing their memories of past encounters with Brecht, with the stark realization that, as Santayana warned, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. One of the countless roles of theater is the motivation not to repeal and replace that which is artful, but to rejuvenate and restore it. Brecht on Brecht is a timely and timeless reminder of why theater exists and persists.

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