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
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
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
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!
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