Critics beware: Bertolt Brecht has a few words of advice. He condemns critiques that fatten artists for the kill with "the praise that precedes the panning." So with all due respect to a theatrical giant, the Four Humours Theatre Company's Brecht on Brecht, currently being performed at the Zeitgeist at Barrister's Gallery, is an uneven piece of work. Still, the show's ambition is to be admired, and its grasp may yet catch up to its reach.
Born in 1898, the German dramatist Bertolt Brecht was a scathing proponent of the working classes; an enemy of war, hypocrisy and corruption; and a general misanthrope. While he found, if not exactly beauty, a gritty vitality in the ugliness of life, this self-knowing line from Brecht on Brecht best sums up the Brecht we meet here: "Hatred disfigures, even if it's hatred of injustice." This grim realization helps explain why this is not a cheery evening. It's not easy to sit through two hours of vitriol. In a particularly bitter vaudevillian section, titled "Does Man Help Man?" two clownish figures turn an acquaintance into a quadriplegic and then decapitate him. And that's the comic relief.
But no one vaguely familiar with Brecht would expect sunny fare. Take, for instance, Threepenny Opera, one of Brecht's best known and most widely performed works. Despite being a musical (a collaboration with Kurt Weill), it's a biting critique of society's overwhelming corruption told through a sort of corporation of beggars and low-lifes.
One of the problems with Brecht on Brecht, then, is not the message but the medium. It is not exactly a play. Created by George Tabori, a controversial Hungarian-Jewish writer who was influenced by Brecht and translated many of his works (including the excerpts here), Brecht on Brecht is a rough journey through the artist's life as told in his own words. The pieces of text include snippets from Brecht's poetry, essays and plays, which include Mother Courage, Galileo and The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui, among many others. Constructed as a Brecht sampler, the script lacks plot and theatrical conflict; coupled with Brecht's sometimes difficult language, this makes for an uphill battle. Another frustration: the play's structure should make it an excellent bit of theatre education, but the program leaves one clueless as to what larger writing each snippet of text was pulled from.
The production has a lot going for it. Some of the best, and most Brechtian, moments happen before the play begins. The actors are onstage, milling around and warming up. The stage manager calls "five-minutes-to-curtain" on a megaphone. One wonders if the performance has started. The answer is yes -- and no.
Besides a playwright, poet and intellect, Brecht was a theater theorist with very specific ideas about performance. His concept of verfremdung, generally translated as alienation, held that rather than using psychological realism to get the audience to empathize with the characters, the actors should be consciously performing with a capital "P" -- larger than life. This would keep the audience rapt, but from a distance. The intent was to captivate spectators with ideas, rather than sucking them in with emotions. "Instead of astonishment, you work for sympathy," he lamented of American actors, as quoted late in the play. Although the play itself hadn't begun in that opening scene, the Four Humours were "Performing." Their self-conscious showiness was fascinating to watch and, because of the uncertainty it created, slightly unsettling. They also seemed to be having a great time. One of them even stuck out her tongue at me, in a friendly, very saucy sort of way.
The evening's main weakness is that the players aren't confident enough to carry this winning attitude through the thicket of Brecht's words. This play is pretty much all about the words; they demand the kind of brio described above. One of the clearest sections quotes Brecht's thoughts on theater. He praises actors who "take their time and thus discover the words' effect!" This is exactly what doesn't happen here. Through too much difficult language, the actors seem rushed. They have scripts in hand for reference. They don't know most passages well enough to really be alive in the words -- in other words, to really "Perform" them, instead of merely reading them with feeling. The show requires nothing less. It's a very tall order, and the production's many genuine merits, including election-year political teeth, should be applauded. Others are the gutsiness to play directly to individual audience members, a great overall look, and seamless staging by director Veronica Russell, who also performs. Martin Covert stands out as the most assured of the ensemble, but everyone has moments that shine, including an almost romantic song rendered with unadorned sincerity by Blake Balu. "Words -- they call out to each other," said Brecht. Given more time, perhaps the Four Humours will help us hear Brecht's words a little better.
- Veronica Russell and Sandra Moorman wrestle with the German playwright's words in Four Humours' current production, Brecht on Brecht, at Zeitgeist.