Let's Talk Off Broadway

Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Tag: Bertolt Brecht

Review | The Threepenny Opera | Book and Lyrics by Bertolt Brecht | Music by Kurt Weill | English Adaptation by Mark Blitzstein | Directed and Choreographed by Martha Clarke | Atlantic Theater Company

Mack the Soupspoon (… couldn’t resist …)

From the first moments of the overture, discordant and musical, played by superb musicians from the back of the stage, you know you’re experiencing something great.  The Threepenny Opera is one of the greatest pieces of musical theatre of the 20th Century — it’s up there with Porgy and Bess — and happily this production fulfills it.

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Review | A Man’s A Man by Bertolt Brecht | Translated by Gerhard Nellhaus | Original Music by Duncan Sheik | Directed by Brian Kulick | Classic Stage Company

… Brecht no way…

This early play of Brecht, set in British Colonial India, takes up the story of a pleasant minded civilian, an Irishman named Galy Gay, who – on his way to buy fish for himself and his wife – is waylaid by three soldiers whose fourth companion has disappeared and is, by force and brain washing (though that term came in later), turned into a enthused soldier, defined here as a killing machine. 

It's challenging to consider whether a man can be completely transformed, re-machined as Brecht would have it, in order to fulfill a role that fulfills the purposes of society's top dogs, but the play doesn't make the case.  The transitions are too abrupt, the change not convincing, and  so — whatever the reality may be — the premise appears silly.  The humanity that permeates Brecht’s best work is lacking here, and the play comes across as diagrammatic and over-long by someone whose full dramatic talent has yet to develop. 

Still, whatever the virtues of provoking thought and shaking up assumptions A Man's A Man may have, this production has an opulent flavor at odds with the play's biting, expressionistic character.  Among Hollywood-like touches, a vast ceiling-to-floor silvery curtain shimmers, a dead ringer for Christmas tree tinsel, to represent the façade of a mysterious, exotic temple within which one British soldier disappeared.  Generally the scale of stage elements, including a prop involving a fake elephant, and the comfortable lighting, contrast with the spare expressionistic vision the characterized the initial German production of 1926.  Anything can be worth doing but the visual extravagance in the Classic Stage production vitiates the drama and Brecht's tough-minded political point of view.    

Gibson Frazier brings power, if not irony, to the role of Galy Gay, particularly in the catalytic scene in which through cruel devices, he’s transformed into a machine-like soldier.   I think that in a production more true to the play’s essential expressionism, the schematic brutality and patent artificiality could have a strong impact.  Here it elicited the response:  “no way.” 

The part of Widow Behick – a gutsy Mother Courage type of woman along the lines of those Brecht wrote into several of his plays — is played by Justin Vivien Bond, a brilliant male drag performance artist.   It’s great fun to watch him – he’s the highlight of the show and keeps it from feeling interminably dull – but, although he takes seriously and acts well the few tender moments, the camp aspect of the performance robs the play of the natural humanity that perhaps a woman playing the part directly, without the distancing of camp, may have provided.

Duncan Sheik's music, contemporary but resonating with Kurt Weil, nostalgic but up-to-date, was appealing and I hope it finds its way into other Brecht productions since, though written for this one, it wouldn't be limited to it.  

Here’s a chance to see an early Brecht play, for some a reason to go – but it’s far from being Brecht’s best, and this production sidesteps its essence in favor of scenic and other distractions. 

A Man's A Man plays at Classic Stage in Manhattan's East Village through February 16th, 2014.  For information and tickets, click on live link of title.

Yvonne Korshak

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Review | Clive by Jonathan Marc Sherman | Based on Bertolt Brecht’s Baal | Directed by Ethan Hawke | New Group

What a disappointment!  I went to Clive because of two actors, Ethan Hawke, who was outstanding recently in Chekhov’s Ivanov at Classic Stage, and Vincent D’Onofrio whose superb acting I watch with fascination on “Law and Order CI” and was excited at the chance to see him on stage.  The upshot:  Hawke gives a stellar, energetic, balletic performance in a play that goes nowhere and has no reason for being, and D’Onofrio’s great gifts are beside the point in the role he plays. 

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Review | Galileo by Bertolt Brecht | Translated by Charles Laughton | Directed by Brian Kulick | Choreographed by Tony Speciale | With F. Murray Abraham, Robert Dorfman and Amanda Quaid | Classic Stage Company

The conflict in Galileo is iconic:  freedom of ideas vs. censorship.  Brecht peppers his play and his character of Galileo (1564-1642 ) with some Marxist views which are anachronistic but the play triggers thought and thrills one at the power of human intellect.

Everybody’s having a good time looking through the telescope Galileo has recently perfected, and figuring out its benefits and fiscal profits.  Galileo, short of money, wouldn’t mind reaping some profit, too, but fundamentally he’s peering into his telescope in his quest for truth, recording his observations, and thinking about them.  His observations and calculations reveal to him that the earth rotates around the sun, not the other way around.

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Review | The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht | Translated by Eric Bentley | Directed by Anya Saffir | Music by Cormac Bluestone | Pipeline Theatre Company

Pipeline Theatre Company’s Caucasian Chalk Circle is one of the best productions I’ve seen all season, if not the best.  It’s a complicated and fascinating play within a play, fired by Brecht’s moral passion, in which a visiting bard, The Singer, spins his tale to two work groups in Communist Russia contesting over control of a fertile valley.  A solution to the conflict — a moral — emerges from The Singer’s dramatized story.

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Review | A Play On War | Inspired by Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children | Conceived and Directed by Ruben Polendo | Written by Jenny Connell | National Asian American Theatre Company | In Collaboration with Theater Mitu

… Mother C …

Written in 1939 in response to Hitler’s invasion of Poland, Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and <her Children is set in the 17th Century during the Thirty Years War.  It goes beyond theater, standing in the minds of those who know it as an archetypal image of war as seemingly endless, futile and cruel. A Play On War is presented as being inspired by Brecht’s Mother Courage but this production by the National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATCO) is essentially Brecht’s play.

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Review | Kaspar Hauser: A Foundling’s Opera by Elizabeth Swados and Erin Courtney | World Premiere | Flea Theater

Kaspar Hauser is an opera about a “feral child” who turned up on the streets of Nuremberg, Germany in 1833;  its music, focus on a world-battered individual, melodrama, cynical stream, and terrific sensory overload take us right back to Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill:  think Threepenny Opera.

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Review | Brecht’s Life of Galileo | Translated by Charles Laughton | Fourth in the Classic Stage series of Brecht dramatic readings

See the previous post in this series, The Good Person of Sezuan, by Bertolt BrechtDefending Truth

The life and science of Galileo are so inherently dramatic that, I think, they led Brecht somewhat astray as a dramatist–he thought a total play wasn't needed.  Wasn't all the drama a playwright could want already there in the searing conflict between Galileo's heliocentrism and the Church's no-holds-barred defense of its geocentric doctrine?  What confrontation could be more elemental than that between Science and Dogma–Galileo vs the Inquisition–with its notorious outcome in which Galileo is forced to recant publicly the truths of sciences?  Brecht is a playwright of ideas but in his best plays he includes other paraphernalia of great theater:  living characters engaged in meaningful conflicts with high stakes (at least to them).  In The Life of Galileo, translated by Charles Laughton, the conflict could not be more significant–truth itself is at stake.  Yet characters live mainly as mouthpieces of ideas.

Maybe, also, that's why the play is jam packed with marvelous lines and memorable aphorisms:  "Truth is the daughter of time, not the author."  "I have no patience with a man who doesn't use his brains to fill his belly."  They help keep us going–luckily!

Because in working out the implications of Galileo's recantation, Brecht's ingenious humanism comes into play, raising the importance of this flawed drama.  True, the recantation of the famous scientist is taken throughout Europe as a set-back for science.  But bear in mind, as Brecht make sure we do, that Galileo was shown the very instruments of torture in a purposeful, programmed climax to his interrogation by the Inquisition.  Hence Brecht's implicit challenges in this play:  Why would you expect Galileo to act otherwiseWhy do you rely on heroes?  and the essential Brecht:  Rely on yourselves.  For this playwright, Galileo is not a failed hero:  he is a man with extraordinary brains and insight who is quite normally human in his fear of pain and love of pleasure.  "Unhappy is the land that has no hero," a disillusioned assistant moans, visiting Galileo during his life-time sentence of house arrest.  "Unhappy is the land that needs a hero," is Galileo's fast retort.

Brian Kulick, Artistic Director of Classic Stage who directed the reading of The Life of Galileo  for the First Look series, treated us to the two extant endings of the play:  one hopeless, one hopeful.  Immediate:  while I was still in the theater, winding down from the reading, I took the hopeless ending to be the "true" one, but in thinking about all I have learned from these readings of four Brecht plays, in reflecting on Brecht's humanism, and on Classic Stage's genereosity and high achievement,  I'm leaning toward "hopeful."

Nearby restaurant favorite — Cafe Deville, 103 3rd Avenue

Next Week:  The Oedipus Cycle at Pearl Theatre

Review | The Good Person of Sezuan by Bertolt Brecht | Translated by Tony Kushner | Classic Stage Company

a peak Off-Broadway experience and they weren't even in costume….

The Brecht is an exciting add-on at Classic Stage, what they call their "First Look Festival."  They're doing a series of four readings on Monday nights–with totally professional actors.  (What an amazing opportunity to delve deeply into a playwright through these readings!  What a cultural contribution!)  First was The Caucasian Chalk Circle–I found it fascinating and by the end was deeply moved though I know others who were less affected.  The second was In the Jungle of Cities–very early Brecht, very dull, but worth doing "archivally".  The Good Person of Sezuan (traditionally The Good Woman of Sezuan) on October 13th was brilliant–and there's more to come, Monday October 20th is Life of Galileo.

The Good Person of Sezuan circles around a question:  how good can a good person be in our imperfect world?  The character whose actions will hold the answer is Shen Te, a prostitute with a golden heart.  Thus the playwright thrusts immediately into a paradox from which we keep hoping and even expecting–with breathless dramatic tension–we can escape.  We can't, and though that may not be news, the dramatic realization at the end left the audience near to transfigured.

Tony Kushner's translation, current and true, helped bring Brecht to vibrant life as did the outstanding cast, headed by Maggie Gyllenhaal who persuasively transformed herself from the pure minded Shen Te to her invented realistic other self, Shui Ta–and back again–with wit and charm.  All the actors seemed to have a marvelous time in the stand-up-when-you-have-lines-sit-down-when-you-don't reading.  Even the podiums that held their scripts came in to play, raised delicately for an imminent seduction, banged down when a character left the scene in frustration.

Brecht readings are in addition to Classic Stage's current main performance of The Tempest with Mandy Patinkin (which was read in their First Look Festival a couple of years ago).  The generosity of Off-Broadway theaters is prodigious:  How can they do so much at once?  where does the stamina come from?  the constant creative refreshment?  In the face of struggle to exist?  The three divinities of Sezuan, who really seemed to hover on substantial Buddhist clouds, should conduct their search for good people among the artistic directors of Off-Broadway theaters–why not start with Brian Kulick of Classic Stage?

The Life of Galileo, at Classic Stage Monday October 20th

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