Alchemical Theatre

at Puszh Studios

It seemed to be working for a while. Gene Walsh and Myron Freedman of the brand-new Alchemical Theatre had found an interesting, topical way to revive Bertolt Brecht’s 1938 anti-Nazi polemic, The Private Life of the Master Race.

The Alchemical idea was to take Brecht’s collection of scenes documenting the everyday horrors of life in the Third Reich and create a new context for them, juxtaposing them against Walsh’s own material about the present-day reunification of East and West Germany. Current events and the catastrophe behind those events would thus share the same stage: history and hope would knock up against each other; undermine, accuse, and expose each other; and ultimately impart a sense, between them, of the dialectics (not to mention the desperate characters) playing themselves out now in the so-called new Germany. The whole thing was very Brechtian, and potentially very neat.

And like I say, it seemed to be working. In order to set up his confrontation, Walsh introduced two groups of clown-dignitaries–one from each side of the Berlin Wall–to watch and comment on Brecht’s 50-year-old scenes. The bigwigs show up in heavy greasepaint, wearing latex noses and Kim Fencl Rak’s psychedelic costumes. They talk in doggerel. They guzzle beer and swap intrigues. A pair of Eastern bloc opportunists pant after Western capital, while their free-world counterparts drool over cheap Eastern labor; a socialist true believer warns darkly against diluting the collectivist dream, while an old-line Prussian imperialist waxes apoplectic over the Treaty of Versailles. Between the ten of them, the dignitaries hit most of the vital interests, issues, and punch lines associated with reunification.

The Brecht scenes, too, seemed capable of hitting a few vitals. An arch, thoroughly chilling equation is made early on, when the two young Nazis in “The Big Family” discuss their fuhrer’s vision of a “united nation.” This is followed almost immediately by a small Brechtian masterpiece, “The Jewish Wife”–in which, having read her situation correctly, the title character prepares to flee Nazi Germany and her spineless gentile husband. Shira Piven’s deeply observed, intensely deliberate performance as the wife is entirely worthy of Brecht’s script: watching her, I could see–suddenly, and with a revelatory clarity–the youth, strength, and torment of women I as a boom generation Jew encountered only after their youth, their strength, and perhaps the worst of their torment were past. This vision was made all the more poignant by the fact that the wife is headed for Amsterdam–the city Nazis would occupy from 1940 to 1945, the city where Anne Frank hid and was discovered.

Unfortunately, nothing–nothing at all–in the rest of this three-hour show can compare with Piven’s “Wife.” Under Freedman’s direction, the other Brecht scenes come across as awkward and uniformly, sometimes ridiculously overwrought.

Freedman’s failure to discover an appropriate playing style is especially excruciating during a scene called “Synthetic Feelings.” Centered on a family’s cynical discussion of whether to give Grandma an operation or let her die, “Feelings” connects not only with Nazi ideas about destroying the weak, the impure, and the unnecessary but also with our own scary enthusiasm of late for starving invalids to death by taking their feeding tubes away and calling it “compassion.” Done well, Brecht’s little skit might generate some serious debate. Maybe even a certain amount of shame. But Freedman lets his actors play it out as bad agitprop instead, with every bit of subtext shoved in our faces. The family members become nothing more than nasty period caricatures, easily dismissable.

Walsh’s interpolations are equally dismissable. After an initial burst of creativity, his rhymes take on a plodding dullness (“I can’t explain / Just why that train / Is in my brain”), his clowns a plodding correctness. The capitalists resolve into unmitigated bad guys; the socialists and various other outsiders are apotheosized. The schematism of it all is especially embarrassing next to Brecht’s subtlety. No one can claim that Brecht wasn’t a ruthless propagandist; nobody would want to. But he was also an agile and penetrating thinker–a wised-up provocateur who sniffed out the incoherence between ideology and life and riffed on it. I expect he’d laugh himself silly at the earnest reductiveness that finally overwhelms Walsh’s commentary.

I have no idea what he’d do, though, if he saw how Freedman and Walsh turn the holocaust into a kitsch melodrama in the final passage. Offensive in its abject grubbing for tears, the scene subverts every intellectual and theatrical value with which Brecht is identified. It also manages to reduce the Kaddish to a slobbery, maudlin banality.

And everything started so well.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Art Brown.