NOT SO EPIC BRECHT
Off the Street Theatre
at the Bop Shop
That sound you hear is Bertolt Brecht scrambling frantically around in his coffin. Not necessarily to defend himself from playwright Brian Edwards’s depiction of him as a ranting shit unrelieved by human virtue–by all accounts Brecht was and didn’t care who knew it. No, it’s this Off the Street Theatre production that Brecht would be more apt to despise. Given the sloppy acting, appalling inattention to detail, and clumsy staging by director Paul Wolf, it is difficult to discern whether Edwards’s play has anything interesting to say about Brecht. The production does little to either instruct or entertain–two principles Brecht himself insisted on.
The play dramatizes the didactic playwright’s lifelong infidelity, impatience, and arrogance, from his early days in Berlin to his exile in Finland, and thence to the United States, where Hollywood, Broadway, and eventually the House Un-American Activities Committee awaited him. To present Brecht’s life as though he were in one of his own plays, juxtaposing his high moral tone with his low-down actions, is an interesting idea. Many of Brecht’s most memorable characters (Mother Courage, Arturo Ui) were presented in much the same unsympathetic manner. But Brecht always gave clear social or economic reasons for their villainy. In Edwards’s play the rise of Nazi Germany and Brecht’s eventual exile don’t so much cause his bad behavior as interrupt it.
What’s the point, anyway? Merely that Brecht might have been a character in one of his plays? Or is it that Brecht’s work should be dismissed, or at least suspiciously viewed, because he renounced communism under pressure?
This production renders whatever point there is moot. The acting is amateur and awkward. Brendan Pentzell is a stiff and unremittingly whiny Brecht, spouting dogma with little conviction. Only Elizabeth Chapman, as Brecht’s coworker/mistress Ruth Berlau, shows any signs of life. The pace is ponderous, the staging static, and the occasional attempt at Brechtian alienation comes off as bad vaudeville.
Most infuriating is the lack of attention to detail. Brecht was fanatic about the little things; he described epic theater as one small detail after another. Since this production seems to be a harsh critique of Brecht, perhaps Wolf feels justified in ignoring detail entirely. Therefore a Berlin prostitute circa 1923 wears what appears to be a J.C. Penney prom dress circa 1992 (costumes by Debbie Unferth). Therefore Nazi soldiers are the only people in Berlin who speak with heavy German accents. Therefore the coffee cup that Brecht sips from is plastic and, if I read it clearly, comes from Dunkin’ Donuts.
If nothing else, we now know where he liked to go for coffee and crullers.