The New Repertory Theatre’s splendid BRECHT ON BRECHT (playing through March 5th) was chosen well before the election. Director Jim Petosa ironically remarked that they thought it would be a small jab in the eye of the new, ceiling shattering administration. Irony, mother’s milk to Bertholt Brecht! Instead the show rivals the sobering surrealism we’re encountering daily.
Brecht revolutionized modern theater with his stark subject matter… and by departing from traditional dramatic strictures: No more sitting in the dark. No more complacency. No identifying with sympathetic or idealistic characters. He staged the consequences of, say, a botched Navy Seal raid. He would put the bloody, mangled bodies of Yemeni innocents center stage, just so we’d recoil. Here is the cruelty of the real world, he would say. No more pretending. No more lovely fantasies. Lights on. Get ready to squirm.
Oh, he fantasized (with the aid of a defiant, dissonant, sneering score from Kurt Weill for The Threepenny Opera) but they were Pirate Jenny’s revenge fantasies, of a ship with eight sails and fifty canons opening fire. Petosa stages her song for the New Rep production with Jenny (the wonderful Christine Hamel) looking down over the crowd she would obliterate if she could, for treating her so badly. And Petosa gets even more traction by transforming Hamel into the actual figurehead on the bowsprit of the deadly vessel!
George Tabori’s sampler of writings and songs brought me immediately back to the heyday of the American Repertory Theater under the helm of Robert Brustein, when they staged production after production of Büchner and Brecht which dispatched us stunned, horrified and converted (Brecht the socialist would have been so pleased) into the night.
In The Theatre of Revolt, Brustein’s breathtaking analysis of “Modern theater from Ibsen to Genet,” he deftly analyzes the duality in Brecht’s writing about the evil man heaps upon his fellow man. Is it in man’s very nature or the evils of society that cause such mayhem? Brustein maintains that Brecht doesn’t answer the question. “His point,” Brustein elegantly posits, “is that the world must be changed; his counterpoint is that the world will always be the same.”
Tabori’s selections for this “savage” revue include a chilling musing from Brecht’s late writings inspired by Eastern religions. “Buddha’s Parable of the Burning House” embraces Brecht’s affinity for the nothingness of the “void,” as the inhabitants of a house burn because they refuse to leave; as well as the sardonic “optimism” of the gentlemen in “Of Poor B. B.” who say “Things will improve,” to which Brecht adds “And I don’t ask when.”
A number of Brecht’s collaborations are represented in the piece, especially with Weill, which the talented troupe nimbly embraces. Yet another of Brecht’s disorienting devices (borrowed from the Berlin cabarets) is to deliver searing lyrics as if they were a lullaby, then suddenly shock the audience into submission. Music director Matthew Stern (who is wheeled out trussed up like a faceless René Magritte portrait) plays cascades of lovely, melodic notes which descend underneath the most lethal of lyrics in The Threepenny Opera, sung by Mack the Knife.
The incomparable Brad Daniel Peloquin recounts Mackie’s lurid adventures in the softest, sweetest of tones until Stern manufactures pure violence out of the piano, jolting us out of our seats with a crash bang. Then they return to Peloquin’s dulcet tenor and gorgeous accompaniment to finish the aria. (Somewhere-somewhere Brecht is smiling. If smiling is allowed. If there is a somewhere.)
The cast march gleefully in formation for the sardonic “Let’s all go barmy. We love the army.” Of course those rifles will be pointed at us. Carla Martinez and Hamel illustrate masochistic womankind for us, refusing well-to-do suitors in favor of more exciting heels with an arrogant, cynical “Sorry.” Then Martinez rages and rhapsodizes about the “rat” she can’t stop loving in “Surabaya Johnny.” Jake Murphy as the soldier and Martinez as “the mouse” sing about fleeting happiness “in the room where we play house.” They all sing “Show me the way to the next whisky bar,” perhaps next to “Moritat,” the most familiar song in the show (to rockers, that is), thanks to Jim Morrison and the Doors.
Perhaps the most memorable (and most frightening) quote of the performance is “Although we stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again.” I don’t know about the rest of my audience but my heart was dragging on the ground. Thank heavens they ended on a hopeful note, with that old, fantastic Spanish moon!
* My only quibble (and it’s very, very small) is that the works from which the scenes and songs were chosen were not identified in the program…And Ryan Bates’ backdrop full of wide, watching eyes were not identified either. I think one eye belonged to Richard Wagner? And one to Man Ray. Jim Pitosa kindly told me the startling close-up is the chanteuse, Brissai, and that Genet got into the act but who were the other famous eyes? I would love to know. A small, small matter indeed.