From the Heart
Bertolt Brecht was the last century's most influential theater director and theorist. Since World War II, his beliefs about political theater have served as the cornerstone of practice for fringe groups and mega-companies alike (most prominently, the early days of Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company were marked by many Brecht-inspired productions). Like his idol, Shakespeare, the feisty German was a gifted poet, master storyteller and wry humorist. Above all, Brecht, who died in 1956, was a clear-eyed, compassionate -- and, save for the Bard, peerless -- chronicler of the human condition.
For proof, look no further than Germinal Stage Denver's compelling production of Brecht on Brecht, a collection of Brecht's writings compiled and adapted by Hungarian playwright and director George Tabori. For two hours, a seven-person ensemble, smartly directed by Ed Baierlein, regales the audience with selections from Brecht's letters, poems, songs and essays, as well as scenes from plays such as The Life of Galileo and Private Lives of the Master Race. As the two-act show progresses, performers Marta Barnard, Eric Field, Lori Hansen, Jim Miller, Marc K. Moran, Erica Sarzin-Borrillo and Michael Shalhoub rightly depict Brecht as a man of the people who produced political theater for the times in which he lived. Even more important, however, the actors handily demonstrate that Brecht's convictions are still relevant today.
The action takes place on a simple platform dotted with a few stools and benches; the rear wall is home to a slightly larger-than-life ink drawing (taken from a famous photograph that practically became his calling card) of a stipple-headed Brecht holding a cigar and smiling at the viewer with bemused detachment. Appropriately enough, the play begins with a few tongue-in-cheek remarks from "On Lighting," Brecht's commentary on murk-and-mood lighting effects -- and, by extension, playwrights and directors who romanticize life instead of showing things as they really are.
Having firmly established Brecht's anti-illusionist stance -- which has historically been known as his "alienation effect," a moniker that, unfortunately, has proved more disconcerting than illuminating -- the performers deftly navigate several of his poems and songs with a simplicity that elevates the underlying message. They wisely avoid the trap of inflating the lyrical dialogue with put-on emotion or meaning; like Shakespeare, Brecht's writing is structured in such a way that speaking his words directly from the heart often brings about the desired effect. And even though Brecht was a die-hard Marxist, the actors succeed in making his political views sound more like a humanist's reasoned pleadings than a revolutionary's militant rants.
Indeed, whether they're kicking up their heels in mock glee during "Abortion Is Illegal," waxing eloquent in "Song of a German Mother" or rattling the rafters with a spirited rendition of "Bilbao Song" (with music by Brecht's collaborator, Kurt Weill), the ensemble rises to the occasion with marvelous verve. Throughout, the performers' admiration for Brecht himself is as infectious as their delight in performing his works, which, even when focused on matters of church and state, don't explode particular belief systems so much as shed light on the political forces that constrain one's ability to do the right thing. Loosely in keeping with that spirit, there's a reference or two to Brecht's priceless testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, probably the single greatest modern example of an artist avoiding government persecution by disavowing translations of his writings (but not the writings themselves) that the committee found objectionable. (In the end, Brecht earned the committee chairman's praise and thanks for his "cooperation," an accolade that drew derisive cheers and laughter from Brecht's supporters in the hearing room.)
While the whole show resonates with timely commentary, there's one episode, tucked into Act Two, which is of particular note and which speaks to Brecht's unrivaled power to assay human feeling. (Despite this, at a recent performance, one patron thought it appropriate to fumble with her knitting needles and yarn during the entire scene.) "The Jewish Wife" tells the story of a woman who, because of Hitler's persecution of the Jews, realizes that she must leave her homeland before her religious beliefs are used as a pretext to persecute her husband, her family and her friends. Erica Sarzin-Borrillo delivers an excellent rendition of the near-monologue-ish piece, just one part of a fitting tribute to an artist who championed the underdog, profaned the sacred and skewered the very authority that sometimes courted him.
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