Brecht on Brecht
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 31, 2009
John Strasberg's Accidental Repertory Theater is performing Brecht on Brecht in their intimate space on Eighth Avenue, and the result is unlike any public presentation of theatre I've ever witnessed. With six of its actors propped on high bar chairs behind music stands (and the seventh, who serves essentially as the "conductor" of the show, stationed nearby), each in a casual variant of rehearsal/audition garb, and with the audience seated just a few feet away in two rows of folding chairs (and Strasberg himself in the back row, at the performance I attended; and the stage manager at a desk a few yards to the right)—well the feeling overall is of a recital among close friends. The actors intermingle with each other and with people they know in the audience before the show and during intermission. Strasberg began the proceedings with a charming chat about his company and their goals, delivered slyly behind a comic nose/eyeglasses/moustache mask (it was, after all, Halloween on the night I attended).
Brecht on Brecht, which is a rather fluid collage of material by Bertolt Brecht, originally compiled and presented by his friend George Tabori, is itself billed as "an improvisation," which makes it perfect for this loose, engaging style of performance. In a manner that can only be called "Brechtian," Anne Pasquale intones the title of each piece while a slide bearing the title is projected on the rear wall of the theatre. The actors then perform the piece—sometimes from their chairs, and often reading from their scripts (Pasquale introduces an improv element by randomly assigning bits to particular actors), and other times in more traditional/presentational style, moving toward the center of the space and occasionally donning a costume accessory (a cap, an apron) and interacting with a few props and bits of furniture to set the scene. At its best (which is quite frequently), the effect is of a spontaneous and organic discovery of the material by the performer.
I enjoyed—and was constantly stimulated and energized by—being able to engage with the actors in this show; our sheer proximity envelops us in the process of creation, for there's just not room in this space for a fourth wall, even if one were desired. Every one of the performers has at least one moment to shine, exploring and working with their assigned material. Audrey Lavine turns the famous song "Pirate Jenny" into a fascinating character study. Judy Krause is affecting in the brief but memorable song "Mother Beimlein."Virginia Armitage and Louis Vuolo team up for the bitterly comic "Abortion is Illegal." Robert Rowe gives us a pensive monologue on hypocrisy and expedience from Life of Galileo, and Pasquale has a long segment from The Jewish Wife in the second act. Finally, Jerry Marsini delivers two prose pieces, "Playwright's Song" and "Questions from a Worker," with a frank simplicity that underscores just how fundamental Brecht's themes are.
In the places where the actors sing—without amplification, of course, accompanied by Ross Patterson on piano—we are reminded particularly of the possibilities of live performance.
Brecht on Brecht seems originally to have been intended by Tabori to help "rehabilitate" Brecht's reputation in the West—to demonstrate that this great playwright was not just a Marxist who retired to East Germany but was also a great humanist, an opponent of fascism and a proponent of freedom and individuality. The material here is mostly unfamiliar; there are just two songs from Threepenny Opera and another from Happy End ("Surabaya Johnny)—these plus Mother Courage's song are the items you're most likely to have encountered elsewhere. So the real gift of this production is to surprise us with Brecht's writing. Songs like "Abortion is Illegal" (a cabaret number from the 1920s/30s) are sadly and startlingly still relevant. The opening piece, "Lost Glory of the Metropolis New York," written in 1930, is similarly resonant:
They raised gigantic buildings up with incomparable waste
Of the best human material. Completely openly, before all the world
They pulled out of their workers what was
Shot into them with shotguns in the coal shafts and threw their used-up bones and
Exploited muscles on the street with
But with casual recognition they reported
The same rude implacability of the worker on strike
On a Homeric scale.
Brecht on Brecht's first act, especially, teems with this kind of prescient, socially conscious material.
The show is not without its missteps. The Jewish Wife segment in Act II goes on longer than it needs to. And while I understand the impulse to use new lyrics for some of the familiar songs ("Pirate Jenny" and "Barbara Song" from Threepenny are both newly translated here by H. Clark Kee), I found myself distracted by hearing both these new words and, in my head, Eric Bentley's, more or less simultaneously.
This is not a show for everyone: if the distancing that a proscenium arch (real or metaphorical) provides between you as an audience member and the talent on stage matters to you, then you may not enjoy Brecht on Brecht. But this is a rich and rewarding event that allows you to experience the discoveries and, as Strasberg dubs them, "accidents" that spark the most interesting art. And it will also bring into focus the breadth and depth of the work of a playwright who, despite his fame and notoriety, is not perhaps as well understood by modern audiences as he deserves to be.