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Brecht on Brecht

A theatrical collage, culled from the writings of Bertolt Brecht.

Carla Martinez and Jake Murphy in Brecht on Brecht, directed by Jim Petrosa, at New Rep Theatre.
(© Andrew Brilliant)

Time was when the "epic" plays by Bertolt Brecht, the influential German playwright and fiery advocate of the rights of the common man speaking out against amoral authority, were frequently staged in America. But as decades passed after World War II, works by younger authors, writing about more au courant concerns such as gender and race, have taken pride of place in our theaters. Pity, since Brecht's focus on the danger of fascist-style governments and the collective greed of the ruling class have never felt more to the point.

New Rep Theatre's production of Brecht on Brecht, a theatrical collage of Brecht's life assembled from his works by George Tabori, and first presented in 1961, is a poor substitute for his full-length plays. This offering is more along the lines of a disjoined assortment of the writer's greatest song hits, a one-act play, and other quotes, interspersed with excerpts from his 1947 testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, but one that lacks the heft of his political beliefs. Twenty-first-century audiences unfamiliar with Brecht must be mystified by the scattershot effect of this show, despite some moving performances from the four-person cast: Christine Hamel, Carla Martinez, Jake Murphy, and Brad Daniel Peloquin, accompanied at the onstage piano by musical director, Matthew Stern.

Brecht fled Nazi Germany for Scandinavia in 1933, moving to exile in California in 1941. He left the U.S. to return to East Berlin in 1949 because, as a Communist, he no longer felt safe here. Excerpts from Brecht's long career of successes in Weimar Germany cabarets and theaters include such hits as "Mack the Knife" and "Pirate Jenny's Song." Both songs are featured in Brecht's most enduring work, The Threepenny Opera, written with composers (and frequent collaborators) Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler. Unfortunately, the significance of these songs is greatly diminished in this out-of-context realm thanks to a lack of stage titles (a frequent Brecht practice) or credit within the program.

Under the direction of Jim Petrosa, the presentation is overstylized and even seems to poke light fun at the material, especially in the opening scene when the four actors, dressed like clowns with large red noses, enter perched on a shopping cart. Overemoting, as if to spread a false cheer, they arrange themselves around the bare stage. The decor, designed by Ryan Bates, is limited to a back wall assortment of cutouts from black-and-white photos of Brecht and his circle.

Gradually, the cast is allowed a more realistic attitude in their many solo turns. Indeed, the most effective moments of the show happen to also be the simplest, when the actors stand still and sing. Martinez gives a moving portrayal of "Marie A" as the Virgin Mary in a soliloquy, returning later to belt out the sizzling lyrics of "Surabaya Johnny" from Happy End. Peloquin is effectively subdued for "Mack the Knife," making the inherent menace more chilling. Hamel has her best role as the title character in The Jewish Wife, the one-act that was included in The Private Life of the Master Race, which premiered in Paris in 1938, after Brecht had fled to Berlin. By turn, Hamel appears pragmatic in her packing for the journey she must take, caring about her Christian husband who is eager for her to be gone, and angry at shouldering the breakup because she is a Jew who must sacrifice her marriage for the sake of his career. Brecht's writing is tight and razor-sharp here, with Hamel presenting it in an appropriately straightforward fashion.

Perhaps what's missing most of all in this revue-style presentation is the parade of memorable characters created by Brecht in his many works: the prostitutes of Threepenny Opera, the equivocal Galileo, the complex but human survivor, Mother Courage, and the others who live on in our theatrical memories. Of course, even in truncated form, it's hard to ignore Brecht's prescient warning from the grave about the use and abuse of power and how quickly individual freedoms can be trampled.