Requiem for Black Marie

nytheatre.com review by Stephen Cedars
June 18, 2013

Dramatizing a biography is always tricky, especially if the figure is a powerhouse.  A writer can please the cult fans but fall into hagiography, or deconstruct the myth and thereby annoy the purists.  Or maybe she can simply dive into the myth, make something expressive with little regard for history, fact, or causality.

What's so intriguing about Requiem for Black Marie is that playwright Sara Farrington, in imagining the way Bertolt Brecht might have manipulated and plagiarized from his lovers/collaborators, does whatever she damn well pleases.  The play straddles history, relationships, expressionistic flourish, and a decent amount of lit-fan reference, all with a fluid theatrical control of the story. In her program note, Farrington asserts that these are only "imagined versions" of the past, and there's little doubt that such freedom inspired the show's wonderfully broad and varied structure.

Of course, she has a lot of help in pulling this off.  The scene structure could have felt unconsidered, but director Shannon Sindelar has shaped a taut show of snappy transitions and narrative momentum, no small feat for an 11-character cast on a minimalist set.  And her collaboration with the live band St. Fortune Collective is crucial towards maintaining an atmosphere that's both unsettling and jubilant.  Certainly, the Weill-influenced sound (and often Weill-penned songs) is due large credit, but Sindelar's decision to infuse almost the entire run-time with music without upstaging the action lends the story an ethereal and surrealistic quality that might otherwise be lacking.

The large cast mostly centers around Brecht's relationship with two women – Bess and Margarete (representing real-life lovers and collaborators Elisabeth Hauptmann and Margarete Steffin).  Obviously, that puts pressure on those actors, and they largely deliver.  What makes Caleb Hammond so affecting as Brecht is his ability to capture both a larger-than-life energy and a juvenile petulance.  Though Hammond (and the language) does sometimes come off as more banal than childishly egregious, he for the most part effortlessly communicates Farrington's vision of Brecht as a man damned by his own charm and repressions, a bully too easy to forgive.  Both of the women work in wonderful counterpoint to one another, though Erin Mallon as Bess is arguably the most fiery and sympathetic presence on stage, possibly because Farrington has tapped into the tragedy of her abused talent more poignantly, possibly because Mallon herself has a naturally intense focus, and probably because it's simply a great collaboration.

Ultimately, the play's free-wheeling nature makes it drag a bit in the last third, mostly because by eschewing character psychology, Farrington's scenes no longer deliver much revelation.  The repetitive structure becomes too pronounced where it was earlier obfuscated, and the lack of an authorial perspective starts to feel problematic rather than poetic.  But the team's energy and innovation are matched by fascinating questions that make for yet another wonderful reason to visit the Incubator.

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