Brecht on Brecht
In director Ike Schambelan's revival of the grab-bag called Brecht on Brecht, Marlene O'Haire seizes the opportunity to show what she can do with such a meaty role. One of the attractions of the piece is that each phone call Judith Keith makes is to someone with whom she has a slightly different relationship, which the actress playing the part must convey with great clarity. O'Haire has no trouble with the subtleties of Brecht's poignant, all-too-realistic piece. Moreover, while interrupting her packing to use the telephone and then to greet her superficially cheerful husband (Nicholas Viselli), O'Haire comes to a boil that is frightening to witness. And there's an absolutely chilling moment when she asks her spouse to hand her a fur coat, though they had both been pretending that she wouldn't be away long enough to need it. Well done.
This go at The Jewish Wife registers as the evening's most successful sequence. That's of the 64--count 'em, 64!--items that George Tabori included when he translated and arranged them for the first Brecht on Brecht production in the early '60s. (Tabori, a Hungarian émigré, worked with Brecht on The Life of Galileo when they'd both reached the States.) The middling-to-okay quality of much of the rest of the presentation has to do with both Brecht and Schambelan. Well, maybe more with the latter, though he has certainly been earnest in his treatment of the material and has elicited equally earnest performances from his eight-person troupe.
While there is everything to be said for the importance of being earnest--to borrow a phrase from a playwright at almost the opposite end of the stylistic spectrum--more is required when tackling Brecht. His philosophical and political views, and his unvarnished way of stating them, shaped as they were in the first half of the last century, have by now become somewhat dated. While, say, Mother Courage and Her Children, with its blunt anti-war message, or The Threepenny Opera, with its unflinching look at venality, pack the power of the identifiable characters depicted in them, there is no denying that Brecht's blanket attitude towards masters and slaves and towards humanity's courting of its own destruction can hit contemporary ears as pure polemic--not to mention as simplistic and didactic.
But Schambelan is ready to go with Brecht, right down the line. Threading his actors around Merope Asch's various set pieces (including a potent Brecht portrait), Schambelan has them declaiming the master's observations--some of which are quite brief--with chisel-like precision, as if the air was granite into which the remarks needed be incised. So there they are, lofting their lines, all too often covering the stage as if in military drill and striking strict poses with a seriousness that eventually runs the risk of seeming unintentionally comic.
In addition to O'Haire and Viselli, the performers going through the regimented paces are George Ashiotis, Gary Bergman, Michael Coleman Dee, Ann Marie Morelli, Pamela Sabaugh, and Xen Theo. (Steven S. White is the costume consultant; Marc Janowitz, the lighting designer). Occasionally, during one of the eight sections into which the show is divided, one or two or three of the eager players are handed a sketch they can take somewhere. Bergman, who strums guitar for many of the musical pieces, is touching in "My Mother's Song." Ashiotis gets mileage from "The Old Hat." Viselli, Morelli, and Ashiotis understand the examination of cowardice treated in "The Betrayal." Brecht himself is occasionally present in recorded testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee; his high-pitched, raspy voice, heard through static, has an immediacy that is largely lacking in the rest of the proceedings.
Most disappointingly, the musical numbers--Brecht wrote magnificent lyrics to melodies by Kurt Weill, Hans Dessau, and Hanns Eisler--are simply not up to snuff. Sabaugh is handed "Surabaya Johnny" and, although she seems to recognize that it's the outburst of a bitter and defeated woman, she doesn't rise to its demands. The ensemble, under the musical direction of Bergman and Terry Wallstein, only does a snatch of "Moritat," more often called "Mack the Knife"; that may have been all Tabori wanted, but the performers' collective inability to give the song much resonance could be the explanation for its truncation. This is not a company that moves well to music, either, and when they throw themselves into high-stepping, it's their willingness to do anything asked that gets them through. (Brecht on Brecht is a Theater By the Blind production, and the company includes both visually-impaired and sighted actors. In performance, the impairments are all but unnoticeable and seem to have little bearing on the results.)