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

Tag: Bertolt Brecht

Review | Cabaret | Book by Joe Masteroff | Lyrics by Fred Ebb | Music by Joe Kander | North Fork Community Theatre, Mattituck, Long Island

…  for sure come to Cabaret

If you want to see a top-notch production of  one of the best American musicals, see Cabaret at the North Fork Community Theatre.  The songs, the musical splendor, the theatrical extravaganza and the powerful story are wonderfully realized in this production, and with an orchestra of eight fine players – you don’t always get live music like that on Broadway.

We’re in 1931 and the waning years of the Weimar Republic in Germany, a time of great creativity,  cultural daring and the freedom to fulfill it – as at the Kit Kat Klub in cosmopolitan Berlin.  There, it seems anything goes – an attitude, a spirit, a world view embodied in the insinuating, fascinating, sexually ambiguous Emcee of the Kit Kat Klub who oversees the events and holds the show together.

A young American would-be writer from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Cliff Bradshaw, gets a quick immersion in let-loose eroticism thanks to the British expatriate singer-dancer Sally Bowles. She’s thrown out of her job at the Kit Kat Klub – but thank heavens not before starring in the show’s dazzling, irresistible opening number, “Wilkommen”!

Needing a place to stay, she moves right in on the astonished Bradshaw, providing a quick introduction to the relatively naïve American on:  unmarried people living together, sex as a way to make a living, abortion, and … romance.

Their elderly, wise-to the-world landlady, Fräulein Schneider, a survivor in an eternally tough world, sings the tough-minded song, “So What?”  Sheer Brecht. So what anything.  So while she seems proper, it’s in character that she, too, is having an affair, with Herr Schulz, a successful fruit-seller widower who plies her not with roses but – even better — with Italian oranges.  Romance, it turns out, is for older people, too.  A theme of this show is that romance is for everybody – mix and match, boys and girls, boys and boys, girls and girls, threesomes, not to mention me and my gorilla.  I wonder if Woody Allen had Cabaret in mind when he wrote Whatever Works.

With all that, it’s not a big surprise that buxom Fräulein Kost in her Japanese silk dressing gown has a series of sailors visiting her at Fräulein Schneider’s rooming house. It’s all a bit over the top for the American from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania but not for long — he adapts quickly.

Why then does he leave Berlin?  Because he can’t adapt to the Nazis.

As the Weimar Republic fades, the Nazis rise to power.  The signs are there.  Swastikas appear on arm bands.  The song “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” is sung in a sweet soprano by a Young Boy, wearing a brown shirt, on his way to being a Hitler Youth.  Thugs break the window of Her Schultz’s store.  We only learn toward the end that Herr Schultz is Jewish because it hadn’t mattered before but now it does. Backing out of their marriage engagement– and before you get a chance to judge her — Fräulein Schneider sings, “What Would You Do?”  Well, what would you do?

Brianna Kinnier as Sally Bowles takes over the stage with her dancing and singing in the first rousing number, “Wilkommen.”  She sings that marvelous music while kicking up her flexible legs, from the floor the chair tops!  She’s joined by an excellent chorus, of singer-dancers, professionally trained, and wittily individualized:  Chelsea Chizever, the show’s talented choreographer, dances gorgeously in the role of Texas, Tamara Flanell, David Lopez, Katrina Lovett, Julia Pulick, Lisa Rasmussen, Haley Unger and Ryan Slatniski.   Chizever’s  choreography throughout is original, varied, creative, and captures the spirit of the times.

Justin Harris is astonishing as Emcee.  He seems always there – as the cabaret of life is always there, and he delivers his alluring songs, alone or ensemble,  “Wildommen,” “Two Ladies,” “It Couldn’t Please Me More,” “I Don’t Care Much,” with a worldly-wise irony that makes you want more.  “If You Could See Her” is a number that has to be seen to be believed – what a creative moment that was for the writers of this show.  Harris’s rendition of “Money,” with the ensemble, designed aptly and wittily circular by choreographer Chizever, is a show stopper.

Linda Aydinian puts across the songs of Fräulein Schneider with a warm intelligence and  a rough but tender pathos.  While no one sings the role with the sardonic catch in the voice Lotte Lenya brought to it in the original 1966 production (heard on YouTube), Linda Aydinian is terrific in her own way.

Michael P. Horn is touching as Fräulein Schneider’s lover, Herr Schultz, a man you can depend on to solve problems, but now we have to worry about him.  He’s got the Nazis to deal with — like Ernst Ludwig, whom Colin Palmer plays as a rapacious wolf in the clothing of urbane civility.  It looks like those are problems even Herr Schultz won’t solve.

Nick Mozlenski as Cliff Bradshaw sings well in the duet with Sally, “”Perfectly Marvelous.”  Jennifer Eager is a humorous and practical Fräulein Kost.

John Hudson as Max, the Kit Kat Klub’s owner, is a convincing brute who uses politics as an excuse to dole out the beatings.  Tom Del Prete brings intriguing delicacy to the Dancing Gorilla.  As the Young Boy, Joseph Podlas’s pure voice heralds an ugly future in “Tomorrow Belongs To Me.”  Matt Eager is a persuasive bureaucrat as the Customs Officer/Official.

John Kander’s witty, powerful music for Cabaret, with lyrics by Fred Ebb, is rendered by the strong orchestra directed by George Moravek, who plays the piano, and with Bob Blank on the guitar, banjo and ukulele, Crystal Crespo on the trombone, Ben Eager on the violin, Will Green on the drums, Ryan Nowak on the tenor and alto saxophone, Colin Van Tuyl on the trumpet, and Marie Varela on the alto and soprano saxophone and flute.

Cabaret is inspired by and derives much of its magic from The Threepenny Opera, with book and lyrics by Bertolt Brecht and music by Kurt Weill.  It’s based on the play I Am A Camera by John Van Druten that draws upon stories by Christopher Isherwood.  Thank you, North Fork Community Theatre, for this outstanding production of an important American musical.

Cabaret, so well directed by Manning Dandridge, plays at the North Fork Community Theatre in Mattituck, Long Island, through  June 4, 2017.  For more information and tickets, click here.


An artist’s view of the big city and its nightlife during the Weimar Republic.  Otto Dix, German, Metropolis, 1928, wood, distemper, 181 x 404 cm., Kunstmuseum, Stuttgart.


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.

Based on John Gay’s 18th-century The Beggar’s Opera, The Threepenny Opera was first produced in Berlin in 1928.  It’s an outstanding and unusual  example of a political point of view, here Brecht’s socialist critique of capitalist society, transformed into art that’s not preachy: skip the preaching, as Jenny reminds us in her “Solomon Song.”  Yet the message,  “First feed the face, and then talk right and wrong,” comes across loud and clear — and joyously.

Set in 19th century London and populated by low-life characters, including prostitutes, beggars and thieves, the show centers on a lean, mean crook Macheath, known as Mack the Knife.  Irresistible to women, he turns the head of Polly, the protected daughter of the wise-to-the world Mr. Peachum, “King of the Beggars”, and Mrs. Peachum.  When Macheath marries Polly (sort of), a furious Mr. Peachum determines to have him hanged;  there are crimes aplenty to accuse him of but the Chief of Police is — guess what — corrupt.  Still, caught in the snare of his “old dependency — women”, as Mrs. Peachum sings it, he comes near to death, only to … see the show!  It’s such a great ending.  Yes, more joyous irony.

What a marvelous wealth of songs!  The singers are all good but some capture the grating quality of the style of Weimar Berlin with which Martha Clarke imbues the show.  John Kelly as the Street Singer delivers a wonderfully subversive introductory “Ballad of Mack the Knife” and is charismatically sleazy throughout in the role of Fitch. Mary Beth Peil is tough and terrific as Mrs. Peachum.  These two most fully capture the character of the music and the essence of The Threepenny Opera.

As Macheath, Michael Park understands the meanings of his all-out songs and gets them across with rich vigor, but his persona, and gorgeously tailored suit, are too comfortable looking — too capitalist — for Mack the Knife.  Not knife-like, he’s more a Mack the Soup Spoon.  F. Murray Abraham is gruff and tender as Mr. Peachum, though he’s not a great singer.  Laura Osnes sings Polly’s songs with a beautiful, strong voice, though she seems too worldly-wise in advance, rather than learning a thing or three from Macheath.

Now what about Jenny?  A big question for this show. Jenny, a prostitute and maid in the brothel, and Macheath’s sometime lover, is the pivotal role Lotte Lenya sang in the original Berlin production in Berlin in 1928 and again in the 1956 production at the Theater de Lys in New York City, and often heard recorded since.  In this production Jenny is misconceived:  turning her back of the strident, no-holds-barred Jenny that Miss Lenya gave and that’s scripted, Miss Clarke gives us a depressed, near-ingenue Jenny, played by Sally Murphy, even to the point of changing the words to suit this passive characterization.  Ending her famous revenge fantasy song, “Pirate Jenny,” by imagining all “the bodies piled up” in front of her, Miss Murphy sings with a shrug: “So what?”  A far cry from Lotte Lenya’s vengeful words:  “That’ll learn ya.”

Maybe Miss Clarke thought Lotte Lenya’s tough Jenny was too iconic, so went the other way.  At any rate, this passive characterization lets us down also in “Solomon Song” where, abandoning irony for woebegone, Miss Murphy sings, face turned away, brushing across the far walls of the set like a teen-ager without a prom date.  The role is salvaged only by the fact that it’s a stupendous song, and Sally Murphy is a poignant, fine performer so that wistful, though off-key, didn’t interrupt the impact of this wonderful show.

The production’s overall concept, set, lighting and costumes are glorious.  The spirit of caricature, the costumes, and choreography are inspired by images from George Grosz’s gutsy and unblinking illustrations of Berlin low-life of the period, as Robert Ruben, who saw the show with me commented, a bringing together of art and theater that recalls Miss Clarke’s Garden of Earthly Delights inspired by Hieronymus Bosch’s famous painting, reviewed here in 2008.    For instance, the sofa in the brothel and the choreographed arrangement of girls on and around it appear to be drawn directly from an illustration by Grosz, a sort of tableaux vivant. All is over-washed with Martha Clarke’s luscious glow and sense of luxury.  George Grosz deserves mention in the show’s program.

Joyous irony:  the show’s grim, underdog message — useless, it’s useless, even when you’re playing rough, useless, it’s useless, you’re never rough enough — is transformed through transcendent art: you walk out of the theater elated.

The Threepenny Opera  plays at the Atlantic Theater in Manhattan’s Chelsea district through May 4th, 2014 — extended through May 11th.

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.

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.

Clive is a talented, successful but self-defeating singer-musician-songwriter whom women flock to and whom he treats badly, one after the other after the other.  That’s pretty much the play.  The four women, all sexually used and rejected in various brutal ways, are hard to tell apart except for one, Clive’s friend’s girl, who stands out because she starts off as virginal and wearing little girl white knee socks  — virginal for the friend, that is, but not for Clive, who attracts her with his irresistible sexual pull and drives her to death.

Eventually Clive, having killed another friend, the bearishly good natured Doc, played by D’Onofrio, flees to Canada where he dies dissolutely and decidedly unloved.  This is not a development, because Clive is a dissolute narcissist from start to finish — he doesn’t change.  That’s the main reason why we don’t need this play.  Hawke is magnetic but he needs a decent vehicle.

Still, it’s amazing that he can give so physically and emotionally all out a performance twice on Saturdays!

D’Onofrio’s greatness lies in his subtlety that lets you know what’s going on inside his head — there are small changes in his face and body language that signal large outward and inward events.  Even when he lets loose emotionally, he illuminates the character, now and through his history.  Here, as Doc, he plays a big guy who mainly squeezes out animal growls and snarls like someone trying not so playfully to scare a child — not much nuance there.   (Why, Mr. D’Onofrio, would you ever take this part?)

The set, by Derek McLane, is stunning — a beautiful abstraction made of the differently textured bottoms of whiskey bottles and beer cans, with an allover heavenly tone of silvery blue.  Open to view when one enters, it makes one all but certain there’s a wonderful evening of theater ahead.  There isn’t.  Clive’s a parcel of wasted talent.

A reader wrote in with the link for David Bowie’s performance in Brecht’s BAAL – well worth a look.

Clive plays at Theatre Row, The Acorn Theatre, on West 42nd Street in Manhattan through March 9.

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.

Galileo understands, of course, that his heliocentric view runs directly counter to Catholic dogma in which Man and his earth are at the center of God’s creation, but, driven by the passion to know, excited and even arrogant in the power of his discoveries, he seems unworried that the Church, through its powerful enforcement arm, the Inquisition, will censor his ideas or threaten his personal safety.

In one of the great scenes in theater, Cardinal Barberini, Galileo’s old friend, is transformed from an ordinary man into The Pope as he stands, center stage, and is dressed, with the aid of an advisor, into full papal regalia, buttoned from neck to hem into to his long gown, taking up the mitre, until, crowned by the tiara, his identity becomes merged fully with the Church.  And, having resisted to this point, he now accedes to his advisor’s insistence that Galileo’s heresy must be stopped, and he releases Galileo to the Inquisition.

It’s enough just to see the Inquisition’s horrific instruments of torture — Galileo recants.   Recant – it’s worth pausing to think about what it means.   Driven by fear, Galileo is forced to state publicly that what he knows to be the truth is not the truth.

His “unheroic” recantation disillusions some of his followers.  But they weren’t shown the instruments of torture.  Among the disappointed, Galileo’s servant says “Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero.”  “No, Andrea, unhappy is the land that needs a hero,” Galileo answers.  Brecht’s Galileo is as much a man of the flesh as of the intellect, one of the keen strengths of the play.

His geocentric view now branded a heresy, Galileo spends the rest of his life under house arrest, but he continues his scientific studies — examining sunspots by peering through his telescope to the point where he blinds himself.  His followers smuggle the results of his investigations beyond the borders of Italy and to the larger world.  Brecht believed that revolutionary ideas are ultimately unstoppable:  in this instance he was right.

F.. Murray Abraham portrays Galileo with a gruffness that suggests a weary experience with the world, but misses the inner excitement and inspiration of his life as a scientist.  Robert Dorfman conveys exquisitely the gentle humor of Brecht’s Pope, thoughtful, ironic, amused even at himself, until he takes on the rigidity of high position.  Amanda Quaid as Galileo’s daughter effectively moves from joyous young love to its disappointment, to a nunnish devotion to her aging father, representing the fallout of the effects of Galileo’s scientific drive on those he loves.

The set is so evocative one seems to hear the music of the spheres.  Suspended globes of different sizes in bluish tones conjure up the solar system, their appealingly rough surfaces referring to Gallileo’s key — and religiously controversial — observation that the moon isn’t perfectly smooth but has mountains.  At times a round projection suggests a view through a telescope — here I think this production missed a bet:  instead of generic views of starry skies, etc., they would have done well to show what Galileo with the magnification available actually saw when he put his eye to the lens, including the way, over time, things moved.

This is a play that I think is inportant to know, and here’s your chance to see it well produced and performed.  Earlier, Classic Stage presented a staged reading of Galileo, including the play’s two possible endings, one “hopeful,” one “hopeless.”  The reading included both endings:  here we have one.

Galileo plays at Classic Stage Company in Manhattan’s East Village through March 18, 2012.

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.

During a civil war, the Governor and his wife, threatened and rushing to escape, forget to take their infant, Michael, with them (the Governor’s killed but the mother gets away).  A servant girl, Grusha, rescues the baby and, to save him from the Prince, flees to the mountains pursued by the Prince’s soldiers, the Ironshirts.  Grusha’s ingenuity, stamina in crossing vast distances through the cold Caucasus mountains with the child in a sack slung from her shoulders, and courage in the face of obstacles can only be compared to the flight of Eliza in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Thrust out of a brief refuge in her brother’s rural house, Grusha finally agrees to marry a villager who’s on his deathbed so that she and the baby can have a roof over their heads.  But after the wedding, the Civil War ends and her husband, no longer threatened by the draft, wakes up hale and hearty!  She’s stuck with a live husband — just when her true love, the soldier Simon, released from war duty arrives to find her married to someone else (though her marriage is, luckily, unconsummated).

Also now that war’s done with, Baby Michael’s mother has decided she wants her child back — after all Grusha’s huge sacrifices for him and the love she bears him.  Back in town, we meet one of the most fascinating characters Brecht created, Azdak — for his story check out the play.  But Azdak through a convoluted series of events becomes a Judge who in an erratic and corrupt way tends to favor the poor and the oppressed.  When the case comes before him of which is the “real mother,” Grusha who took care of the baby, or the birth mother, Azdak devises a solution reminiscent of the Judgment of Solomon: you can bet the one who loves him most wins and you can bet that’s Grusha.  Things work out well also for Grusha and Simon.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle has a vast number of characters and the many actors, except for The Singer, play multiple roles.  The acting is without exception, and without even a moment’s lack of focus or concentration (not anywhere, and I was in the first row and in arm’s reach of the actors) exceptional:  professional, well-trained, moving.  Three parts are particularly key.  Grusha experiences the gamut of human emotions and experiences, and Maura Hooper, in this huge role, expresses these whether subtle or large scale.  The part of Grusha is so central that the success of the play truly depends on it and Ms. Hooper carries it off with great stage presence and charisma.  The roll of Azdak is similarly key in the later part of the play where Gil Zabarsky in the part is powerful, rakish and hilarious.  And throughout Michael R. Piazza as the Singer bridges the episodes with a voice brimming with thoughtful tenderness;  his face constantly reflects the experience of taking in the events he’s describing.  But in truth the same could be said of everyone — these are such good actors!

Talk about production values!  Using, well, not a lot — beams, rope, a ladder, a large and wondrously ragged piece of cloth, the designers of this off-off Broadway production conjure up vast distances in a varied landscape, from city to rural mountain villages, treacherous bridges crossing precipitous valleys — I could only think, Spider Man eat your hat.

The puppet that represents Michael as a toddler has a refreshingly original look and conveys the fluctuating vitality and unease of the young child.  The puppets of the men hanged up there are bedraggled and poignant.  The music, both in the background and accompanying Brecht’s songs suggests Russian folk songs and Kurt Weill — just right.

But what about that solution to the conflict — the moral of the story?

Brecht drew upon an old Chinese play for Caucasian Chalk Circle but made an important change:  in the physical tug-of-war between the child’s birth mother and the woman who cared for him, the birth mother in the old Chinese story spares her child by releasing her hold on him, while the woman who cared for him would tear him apart.  It’s reversed here:  Grusha, who has cared for him, puts her own desire to possess him second and acts upon what’s best for the child — she let’s him go — while the birth mother in her selfish urge to possess him would tear him limb from limb.

From here, Brecht segues into lyrical poetry about possession, expressing the view that those who nurture and take care of things are the ones who should own them.  Here, Brecht is expressing his Marxist point of view;  he’s writing about property, and his view that ownership should be in the hands of those who do the work, like Grusha.  This idea came across with particular force in a staged reading of The Caucasian Chalk Circle at Classic Stage Company a couple of years ago:  if I hadn’t heard it there, I would have missed it here.  There’s so much stage action toward the end of this production that the lyrical and visionary Brechtian poetry, the play’s poetic peak, is interrupted, and Brecht’s idea of ownership does not come across clearly.  Too much weight is given to the importance of people being “good” — which Brecht didn’t much trust anyway — and too little to his political purpose and view.

Nevertheless this is a richly realized production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle.  It’s so good I can hardly wait for what Pipeline Theatre Company does next!

The Caucasian Chalk Circle  plays at the John and Seward Johnson Theater at Theater for a New City in NYC’s East Village through March 19.

Left, Maura Hooper as Grusha, Center (above), Gil Zabarsky as Azdak, (below), Glen Hergenhahn as Shauwa, Right, Jacquelyn Landgraf as the Governor's Wife (the birth mother), far right Sam Dash as Soldier.  Photo: Ahron Foster

Left, Maura Hooper as Grusha, Center (above), Gil Zabarsky as Azdak, (below), Glen Hergenhahn as Shauwa, Right, Jacquelyn Landgraf as the Governor’s Wife (the birth mother), far right Sam Dash as Soldier.  Photo: Ahron Foster

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.

Mother Courage (here called variously “The One on the Cart”, “The One Who Watches Television”, or “Mama C”) makes a living for herself and her children by selling items to soldiers from the wagon she wheels through a war torn countryside.  She profits from the war and, one by one, loses her three children to it:  her older son, her younger son, and her mute daughter, until at the end she has nothing but the wagon.  There it is in its powerful nutshell.

The machine of war grinds each of its characters, innocent or perpetrators, smart or stupid, or the usual mixed bag, to dust.  The characters aren’t revealed to the audience through their words and actions;  they’re emblematic and used to express Brecht’s ideas and visions.  We know who they are from the start and they don’t change;  their situations change, all beyond their control.  And which side you’re on doesn’t matter:  you loose on both sides.

Visually this production is original and intriguing.  The white, simplified costumes support the symbolic nature of the characters;  as a friend pointed out, white is a color of mourning in the Japanese tradition and, particularly interesting for Brecht’s title, is also associated with courage.  The movement is choreographic rather than naturalistic.  Aspects of Arabic clowning and the Beijing opera are included, as we’re told.  The “bad guys” (of the moment), soldiers who come to grab civilian recruits, ride threateningly fast on child-size bicycles, a particularly effective way of conveying Brecht’s thoughtless, fascist toughs.  The music, both as background and as accompaniment, is evocative and warms the experience of watching the play.

A variation on Brecht’s script is that instead of a continuous time line, the narrative shifts back several years every time it takes up another child’s life, returning to the point where that child’s story veers off to bad.  This was not a good decision:  although fate holds a different end for each child, they interact as members of one family so this device comes across as repetitive and makes the play seem overlong.

em>Mother Courage is challenging, exciting and iconic but it’s not seductive.  The characters are not “well rounded” and “sympathetic”:  Brecht truly brings us into the play of ideas on all counts.  Restarting the story several times as here turns a powerful but challenging play into a marathon.  It doesn’t help that Brecht’s twelve years of war in twelve scenes is turned into over twenty!  Nevertheless there are some intriguing visual and musical ideas.  They don’t remove A Play on War an arm’s length from the original, but they provide some stimulating ways of experiencing Brecht’s play which is, itself, highly stylized and open to experimentation.

A Play on War is at the Connelly Theater in Manhattan’s East Village February 12 through March 6.

Jon Norman Schneider as Suez Cheese and Nikki Calonge as Birdie in NAATCO's <em>A Play on Words.</em> Photographer William P. Steele

Jon Norman Schneider as Suez Cheese and Nikki Calonge as Birdie in NAATCO’s A Play on Words. Photographer William P. Steele

Mia Katigbak as Mama C, Marcus Ho as Rev and Orville Mendez as Cookie in NAATCO's <em>A Play on War.</em>  Photographer William P. Steele

Mia Katigbak as Mama C, Marcus Ho as Rev and Orville Mendez as Cookie in NAATCO’s A Play on War.  Photographer William P. Steele

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.

At his first appearance among the people of Nuremberg, Kaspar is wobbly legged because, according to his account which is represented in the opera’s stunningly choreographed beginning, he grew up in a dungeon.  Awkward and with little speech–he’s grown to teen age without proper human contact–he seems to them like an idiot.  We see him sitting autistic-like, repetitively rolling his little horse back and forth.  Quickly, though, he achieves great fame as an oddity and object of pity.  Much as in Truffaut’s film, The Wild Child, about a true feral child, a professor takes him in to study and teach, aided by a loving woman, the professor’s mother.  Throughout, the opera conceives this wide-eyed beautiful boy abruptly thrown into the real world as an innocent, somewhat Christ-like, while enemies are out to get him for their nefarious reasons.  The gullible crowd sways back and forth at the slightest suggest between adoring him and persecuting him, but he’s actually done in by upper class forces that want him out of the way (because he might really be a child of noble birth who was sent away to die in infancy, etc.)

The production, placed in something of a long narrow pit below the level of the audience, is magnificent.  Chiaroscuro lighting creates a furtive Brechtian world of fickle fate.  The actors, many of the Bats, the Flea’s wonderful young resident company, are beautifully costumed and choreographed, often caught strobe-like in moments of grotesque expressions, see photo below, like something out of Bosch’s Christ Mocked (follow link for photo).  Behind it, in front, all around–and loud–is the percussive, mass sung, growing Weill beat.  Only a few of the singers have operatic voices, but all sing well enough for the small theater, further baffled by placing the five members of the orchestra behind a curtain that spans the entire stage.  One would have liked the chance to applaud the orchestra but they didn’t come from behind the curtain to take a bow.

Kaspar Hauser is about a victim, in personality as well as in fact, and the passivity of this central character is a fundamental dramatic weakness.  Everything happens to him.  The other characters are all also oddly lacking in volition.  The professor who takes him in gets “tired”.  The professor’s mother tries to protect Kaspar but not hard enough to achieve anything.  His real mother sings sadly but with absolutely no thought of finding him.  The competitive “bad” mother behind Kaspar’s childhood abduction uses somebody else to try to get the teen-age Kaspar out of the way.  Her agent fails, and then seems unsure of what he wants to achieve about the boy.  Here we really part from Brecht, and his passionately motivated, determined character creations.

Still and all, for its outstanding production values, and strong musical and theatrical heritage, this is quite a show.   Kaspar Hauser  plays at The Flea Theater in Tribeca, NYC, through March 28

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

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén