Seeing the lighter side

Brecht on Brecht

Arranged and translated by George Tabori
Directed by Ike Schambelan
Theater By The Blind
Blue Heron Arts Center
123 East 24th Street (206-1515/
Equity showcase (closes June 30).
Review by Jonathan Shandell

For all the idolatry bestowed on the legacy of Bertold Brecht-he is, after all, one of the few 20th-century figures given his own adjective-rarely (if ever) does the German playwright get much credit for his sense of humor. "Brechtian" usually suggests total seriousness: revolutionary socialist politics, dispassionate acting, anti-empathic direction, and the fabled "alienation effect." But Brecht was as aware as anyone that theatre could never teach if it did not first amuse and entertain; the playful side to Brecht's aesthetic, though less immediate than in the work of his socialist contemporary George Bernard Shaw, is ever-present and oft-overlooked. All the more refreshing, then, was Theater By the Blind's nimble revival of the theatrical pastiche entitled Brecht on Brecht. Compiled by Brecht collaborator George Tabori and first performed to critical acclaim in 1961, Brecht on Brecht pieces together an eclectic assortment of scenes, poems, songs and other snippets written and uttered by Bertold. Theater By The Blind found charm and wit everywhere in this theatrical potpourri; and that was (mostly) the perfect recipe.

Beneath a giant portrait of Herr Brecht, and framed by set designer Merope Asche's scenic collage of props, platforms, and garments, the ensemble of both sighted and blind actors wove together the numerous episodes of Brecht on Brecht with agile clarity. Director Ike Schambelan's touch was skillfully restrained, connecting a seamless dramatic patchwork through a series of simple movements and stark, potent stage tableaux. Marc Janowitz's lighting and Steven S. White's careful selections of props and costume pieces provided delicate and subtle punctuation. The entire cast of performers (George Ashiotis, Gary Bergman, Michael Coleman Dee, Ann Marie Morielli, Marlene O'Haire, Pamela Sabaugh, Xen Theo, and Nicholas Viselli) melded into a rare phenomenon seldom seen in today's theatre: a true ensemble of sharing collaborators. Even as the script revisited those darkest 20th-century moments of war, hatred, and paranoia for which Brecht held a front-row seat, the performers continued to delight in exploring the charm and wit of Brecht's intellect.

Only occasionally was the material betrayed by this production's light-hearted, breezy approach. Brecht's revolutionary theories on acting and his wry commentary on Hollywood's film industry were dismissively presented only as lampoons of egotistical show people. The presentation of The Jewish Wife-a short play depicting a Jewish woman's decision to leave her oblivious German husband as the Nazis rise to power-was believable, natural, and profoundly moving; but believable, natural, and moving were theatrical qualities this playwright consistently and notoriously struggled against. The company might have taken Brecht's theories more to heart here, and found ways to bring their own sociopolitical perspective as visually impaired theatre artists into the presentation of their roles. The Jewish Wife is, after all, about a culture's willful blindness to the evil growing in its midst; so who better than this company to demonstrate it for us? But by and large, the production struck the right balance between the witty and the weighty.

Box Score:

Writing: 2
Directing: 1
Acting: 2
Sets: 2
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 2

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Copyright 2002 Jonathan Shandell