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Theatre in Review: Brecht on Brecht (Theatre Breaking Through Barriers)

Scott Barton, Sean Phillips, Stephen Drabicki. Photo: Carol Rosegg

There are so many needle-sharp revelations in Brecht on Brecht, now at ART New York Theatres, that you will choose your own favorites; at least three stick in my memory. The first is the disconcertingly titled presentation, "The Jew, A Misfortune for the People." It sounds like anti-Semitic propaganda of the sort with which Bertolt Brecht -- poet, playwright, provocateur -- would have been all too familiar. The opening gambit: "If, as our leaders declare over their loudspeakers/The Jews are responsible for all our misfortunes/And since our leaders are extremely wise/And never cease to emphasize the fact/Therefore, it is obvious that our steadily mounting misfortunes are due to the increasingly decreasing number of Jews."

Look at that sentence again. What starts out as standard Nazi smear ends with a startlingly twist. A pestilence that spreads by decreasing? Next comes the assertion that it's the Jews' fault when "hunger stalks the land" and there is no wheat for bread. Also, we are told, one cannot identify a Jew by any physical characteristic; rather, if someone is a source of misfortune, he or she must certainly be a Jew. This leads to the inescapable conclusion that "our leaders have been caused by the Jews." In the course of a brief speech, logic has been reversed and hatred has been turned back on itself, creating an absurdity that collapses from its internal contradictions.

Another passage, "The Burning of the Books," evokes the Nazi crime of destroying the works of "subversive" authors. After a chilling description of such a bonfire, actor Stephen Drabicki assumes the character of "an exiled poet, one of the best," who "studied the list and found to his horror/That his own books had been forgotten." In considerable pain, he cries, "You left me out! You can't do that to me! Have I not always reported the truth in my books? And now you treat me like a liar." After all, what's the point of a writer who doesn't disturb the status quo?

On a less ominous note, the sunny Anita Hollander portrays an elderly lady who goes grocery shopping daily, even though her benefits have been cut, leaving her broke. Nevertheless, she carefully goes through the motions of selecting several items, allowing them to be run up by the cashier. Then, searching through her purse, she announces has no money. The point of this exercise? "I said to myself/If all of us who have nothing/Stop coming, where there's food to be had/People might think we don't need anything/But if we come and can't buy anything/Then they'll know." Really, she is committing an act of charity, reminding others of suffering that must not be ignored.

Brecht spent his life reminding others of that which must not be ignored, and he paid a heavy price for doing so. Drawn from his writings by George Tabori (who also provided the felicitous translation), Brecht on Brecht is a sort of autobiographical portrait packed with digressions and musical numbers; it is an invigorating look inside the mind of a writer who specialized poking those in power with the sharp stick of satire. His was a life filled with troubles, shaped, repeatedly, by exile; if Hitler couldn't get his hands on him, the House Un-American Activities Committee would certainly try. As this piece demonstrates, his words were scalpel-sharp and laced with irony; lurking behind them is an unnerving question: Exactly how dedicated to its own destruction is humankind?

A figure inescapably associated with the years between the two world wars, Brecht remains thoroughly contemporary in his concerns. A passage titled "Concerning the Infanticide, Marie Farrar" portrays a poor single mother demonized for her poverty and driven to commit a horrifying act; it's a grim reminder of this country's abortion wars. A passage about immigrants notes, "Even here/We can hear the screams from their camps. After all, we ourselves/Are almost like rumors of crimes that have slipped out/Over the border. Every one of us/Walking in tattered shoes through the crowds/Bears witness to the shame that stains our nation." You'd think he visited the US -- Mexican border last week. "From a German Primer for War" contains this warning: "General, your men are very useful men/They know how to fly, and they know how to kill/They have one little fault:/They know how to think." That's always a problem, isn't it?

Yawning inequality, the threat of fascism, festering tribal hatreds; it's all here in a bulletin from another century that feels like this morning's headlines. The text also gives us a palpable sense of Brecht, the man, a provincial who learned to "feel at home in asphalt cities," feeling "well-supplied with each last sacrament: Newspaper. Brandy. And tobacco." He can be diverted from work by a young son who takes him "away from a poem, in which I point a finger at those/Who prepare a war which may wipe out/This continent, this island, my people, my family, myself." Driven from home by the rise of Hitler and the specter of war, he says, "We marched through the war of classes, changing countries more often than shoes, despairing." And, like so many German writers, he ends up in Hollywood -- to his mind, a sunny, tropical vision of Hell -- where, he notes, "Every day to earn my daily bread/I go to the market where the lies are sold."

In pulling together his thinking on so many issues, Brecht on Brecht offers a clarifying view of a playwright whose works can often be fiendishly difficult to stage nowadays. (The Wooster Group's singular take on The Mother, now playing at the Performing Garage, is a good example.) The piece's 1962 debut, with a once-in-a-lifetime cast that included Lotte Lenya, Anne Jackson, Eli Wallach, and Viveca Lindfors, was an Off Broadway landmark. Nicholas Viselli's staging for Theatre Breaking Through Barriers can be counted a success in a way that a 2018 revival by Potomac Theatre Group (in a somewhat different version) was not. The director and his cast find a style for this unusual piece that, without being effortful about it, draws a direct line between Brecht's era and our own.

Theatre Breaking Through Barriers is devoted to created opportunities for artists with disabilities, a consideration that vanishes when the company is so confident in its presentation. (Among the grace notes here, the show opens with the actors describing their appearance for any blind members of the audience; the production is also surtitled for the hard of hearing.) Beyond those already mentioned, standouts include Fareeda Pyracha Ahmed, gifted with an authoritative delivery; Pamela Sabaugh, endowing "Surabaya Johnny" -- one of the most masochistic ballads ever written -- with a powerful dignity; and Sean Phillips, whose enormous stage presence and resonant speaking voice makes one want to see him in any number of classical roles.

Viselli's staging requires a simple production design from Bert Scott (scenery and lighting) and Courtney E. Uruyo (costumes). But special mention must go the to the projections of Samuel J. Biondolillo, which include photos and portraits of Brecht over the years and priceless footage (aided by the sound design of Eric Nightengale) of a nervous Brecht being interrogated by HUAC investigator Robert Stripling.

Brecht on Brecht also offers a powerful reminder that we are always living in a time of upheaval. No matter the year, the barbarians are forever at the gates. "How exhausting it is to be evil," he once wrote. Then, as now, however, the evil are able to summon a remarkable energy as they go about the business of imperiling humanity. --David Barbour

(29 October 2021)

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