BACK STAGE WEST
April 02, 1998
BRECHT ON BRECHT
at the Odyssey Theatre
Reviewed by Rob Kendt
As an introduction for the uninitiated to the writings, theatre, and ideas of the German poet/playwright Bertolt Brecht, Brecht on Brecht, George Tabori's 1962 "collage" of scenes, songs, poems, and journal entries, is fair enough. It samples many major Brecht plays--Mother Courage, Galileo, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, The Private Life of the Master Race--and touches on a few of his most enduring social and aesthetic concerns, all the while providing a rough biographical sketch, especially of his formative years in frustrated exile from Nazi Germany.
But it's worth carping that such a sketchy, fragmented enterprise is essentially un-Brechtian in that it can't sustain any one dialectical argument for any length of time, or work through the knotty sociopolitical contradictions that were his great subject; instead, Brecht on Brecht is expressly designed to whisk us fleetly from moment to moment, impression to impression, and to gracefully mix dark and light, heavy and flip.
Perhaps director Ron Sossi, in this new revival to celebrate the centenary of Brecht's birth, has left some rough edges showing to keep it more "Brechtian," though they look more like telltale signs of under-rehearsal. Across Lawrence Miller's plain black multi-leveled set, eight actors--four men, four women--pace and declaim their Brecht bits, some on book, some off (some confusedly in between), some with effectively telling understatement, though most with a desperately punched-up, actory emphasis, as if they were auditioning for a two-liner on Ally McBeal.
After an interminably rambling first act, the second act gains footing and focus midway through, unsurprisingly, when Brecht's story takes him to Hollywood. And while only Jack Axelrod and Erin Noble manage to put across coherent evening-long performances out of bits and pieces--and Noble does a searing turn in the climactic near-monologue The Jewish Wife--none of the performers is denied a shining moment. For Greg Mullavey, it comes in a humble plea for posterity's understanding, "To the Next Generation"; for Tom Lillard, in the lovely "Marie A. Song"; for Robert Thaler, in the rueful, meditative "Fourth Psalm, Part I"; for big-voiced Camille Saviola, in a flawlessly droll rendition of "Solomon Song" (the Blitzstein version); for steely-voiced Maureen Teefy, in a pair of songs, "Surabaya Johnny" and "Song of a German Mother," and for Sheelagh Cullen, in a loving description of an actor choosing the right hat for the role.
But there are many low points here, as well: pseudo-German accents that vary widely in quality, cutesy piano flourishes by John Jay Espino, rambling staging that wanders in and out of Marc Rosenthal's lighting, a dull array of street clothes that evoke a church pot luck. We look forward more hopefully to the Odyssey's June production of The Good Person of Setzuan as a better introduction to a playwright whose work unfortunately seems to require one.
"Brecht on Brecht," presented by and at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., W. Los Angeles. Mar. 28-May 10. (310) 477-2055.