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Theatre in Review: Brecht on Brecht (Potomac Theatre Project/Atlantic Theater Stage II)

Christine Hamel. Photo: Stan Barouh

Seeing this roundup of the German playwright's greatest hits in prose, dialogue, and lyrics, I had the oddest double sensation: In some ways, Bertolt Brecht speaks directly, powerfully to this moment; in others, he couldn't seem further away.

Even when the details are different from those of today's world, Brecht's savagely direct style can send chilling frissons throughout the room. The man who lived through virtually every cataclysm that the first half of the twentieth century could throw at one -- and that's saying something -- had the marked ability to stare into the abyss and sum up its unsavory contents in a few lethally mordant words. Commenting on the predations of war, a woman says, "My young son asks me, Should I learn French?/I ought to tell him: Why, when France is gone?/Rub your belly and groan. The French/Will understand you, my son." In a jab that eerily reflects the tinseled, empty nature of today's politics, a public relations expert says, "I have noticed that many people shy away from our ideology/Because it offers a solution to every problem/In the interest of good public relations/I suggest we invent a number of problems we consider unsolvable." A poet, hearing of a government order to burn all subversive books, is furious to learn that he hasn't made the list: "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. I order you:/Burn me!"

It's always a pleasure to hear some of those great, indelible ballads of pessimism -- most of them set to the haunting melodies of Kurt Weill -- such as "Alabama Song," which has been covered by the likes of Jim Morrison, Marilyn Manson, and Bette Midler; that all-hope-is-lost portrayal of romance, "Barbara Song"; and "Pirate Jenny," another love song, of sorts, that culminates in a series of beheadings. "Mack the Knife," a chilling account of serial rape and murder, is rescued from its latter-day fate as a swinging jazz anthem.

Still, there is something missing in this often-effective entertainment, and part of it has to do with the young and gifted cast. The original production of Brecht on Brecht, an Off-Broadway smash in 1962 with a starry company that included George Gaynes, Anne Jackson, Viveca Lindfors, Eli Wallach, and Lotte Lenya (Weill's widow), must have been something to see, with Lenya's presence -- and her distinctively guttural vocal delivery -- providing a live connection to works written two and three decades earlier. To Cold War audiences, Brecht, who died in 1956, must have seemed more like a commentator on all-too-recent events.

The cast at PTP is nimble, bright-eyed, and technically skilled -- but their collective pleasant, amiable, and at times positively ingratiating manner seems to emanate from a different universe altogether: Brecht wrote about the details of grinding poverty -- the dirt, the stink, the illness -- in a world where more fortunate classes grew obscenely fat and self-satisfied. He was a witness to authoritarian governments with their industrialized murder plans. He saw European civilization descend twice into a killing field and he was a witness to the Holocaust. In reaction, he embraced Marxism, only to be bitterly disappointed by its articulation in the Eastern Bloc countries, where the very air was polluted by terror and suspicion. His writing is shot through with a bitterly ironic tone, an acridity that comes from full-on contact with life's most awful facts, a grin that looks more like a grimace of pain -- all of which is missing here.

Is it impossible for young actors reared in the post-industrial economic bounty of late twentieth-century America -- a place where kindness and inclusion are the new watchwords -- to fully grasp what it was like to be caught up in Hitler and Stalin's death machines? One wonders. The production also suffers from a certain helter-skelter construction, in which excerpts from various works come at the audience without explanation or context, a quality exacerbated by Jim Petosa's direction. As we enter the theatre, the stage is set with a row of seats and music stands, leading one to expect a genteel evening of reader's theatre. As the play begins, one group of actors overturns the furniture, while another gang enters from upstage, some of them wheeled in in a grocery cart. This is staged in a cacophony of shouts, with everyone donning red clown noses. It's an earnest attempt at suggesting the disruptive nature of Brecht's writing -- but here, and in certain other overstaged passages, it's hard to focus on the words, what with all the presentational stage business. Once or twice, one may have the feeling of seeing Godspell rather than a celebration of Bertolt Brecht.

The clear standout in the company is Christine Hamel, who offers a lovely, melancholy rendition, in German, of "Nanna's Lied," a ballad about a streetwalker, and part of "The Jewish Wife," a stunning little piece about a bourgeois hausfrau who, having decided it is time to flee to Amsterdam, leaving her German husband behind, tries to see that all his comforts are attended to. It climaxes in a confrontation with her nonplussed (and unseen) spouse, to whom she quietly lays out the galling facts of his -- and, by extension, all of Germany's -- hypocrisy in the face of Chancellor Hitler. ("You discover the quantum theory, you invent heart operations, but you let yourself be ordered about by these half-savages, so that you may conquer the world, but you're not allowed to keep the wife you want.") If those words don't freeze you to the bone, you may have stopped feeling altogether; this scene alone is worth the price of admission. I also liked Harrison Bryan's corrosive rendition of "Mack the Knife" and Carla Martinez's anguished "Surabaya Johnny." In these moments, the production acquires a much-needed touch of acid.

Petosa does stage some highly theatrical tableaux, and Joe Cabrera's lighting design adds much to the atmosphere with his moody sidelight washes, not to mention the skill with which he picks individual performers out of the darkness. If you have any interest in the author, Brecht on Brecht offers many pleasures, as long as you understand that occasionally its acting style is out of sync with its terrible, commanding words. -- David Barbour


(2 August 2018)

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