By Michele Markarian
‘Brecht on Brecht’ – Written by Bertolt Brecht. Arranged by George Tabori, from various translations. Co-produced with Boston Center for American Performance. Directed by Jim Petosa; Music Direction by Matthew Stern; Scenic Design by Ryan Bates; Costume Design by Alyssa Korol; Lighting Design by Bridget K. Doyle. Presented at the Black Box Theater at the New Repertory Theatre, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown through March 5.
Two men and two women rush out of the wings, wearing red clown noises and pushing a shopping cart. They babble and chant slogans relevant to today (…”nevertheless, she persisted”. “No war”, etc) before bringing onstage a man in tails (music director and accompanist Matthew Stern) to the piano. “What the heck IS this?” I thought somewhat crankily, before settling in to the very entertaining, often moving, and frighteningly timely kaleidoscope of Bertolt Brecht and his writing, expertly directed by Jim Petosa.
Brecht was born in 1898 in Germany. His interest in theater and Marxism developed alongside Hitler’s rise to prominence within the Nazi party. His poems and prose, with a few minimal updates in this production by Jim Petosa, are eerie reverberations into the past that resonate with the present political climate. Blaming the other – in this case, Jews – for misfortune, the denial of science by “self-seeking men of power”, and the dangers of forbidden abortion are just a few of the topics addressed in the piece, which runs 85 minutes without an intermission.
Brecht had some unorthodox ideas about theater, which this production incorporates. He sometimes employed bright stage lighting, a direct approach with the audience, and unconventional casting, warning us against the tedium of typecasting. Which is one of the strengths of this show – people that comprise the cast are all, in their own way, not what you would expect. There’s nothing stagey or musical theater-y about them; they appear to be ordinary people. While all four of them are excellent, Christine Hamel as Mature Woman and Brad Daniel Peloquin as Mature Man are particularly affecting. Hamel’s vocals are pure and straightforward. Her portrayal of a Jewish woman leaving her Christian husband to go to Amsterdam – Amsterdam! – is both moving and tragic. Peloquin delivers a version of “Mack the Knife” that manages to be gorgeous, beguiling, and sinister at the same time. Jake Murphy as Young Man and Carla Martinez as Young Woman give “Tango Ballad” steam and grit. Alyssa Korol’s costumes capture the working class of the 1930s.
Unnerving parallels can be drawn from the material to America today, which is uncomfortable – I was always able to watch a show like “Cabaret” or “The Firebugs”, for example, and think, oh, yeah, that happened in Germany. When the Young Man says, “For even though the world stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again,” it is nothing short of chilling. For all its creepy counterparts, though, Brecht on Brecht ends on a note of hope, reminding us that “The night has twelve hours. Then comes the day”. As dark as it may get, things will change, and change again. It’s up to us to be aware. If theater is about illumination, a small glimpse into the dark night of the soul, Brecht on Brecht is a triumph. For more info, go to: http://www.newrep.org/productions/brecht-on-brecht/