In “Brecht on Brecht,” TBTB presents a fascinating collage – more like a barrage – of the poems, stories, songs, plays, parables and sayings by the prolific and consequential German theater artist Bertolt Brecht, best known in the U.S. for Three Penny Opera (his collaboration with composer Kurt Weill) as well as Mother Courage and Her Children, The Life of Galileo, and The Caucasian Chalk Circle. (The Wooster Group is currently presenting a production of Brecht’s lesser known 1932 play, The Mother.) The many, largely unidentified excerpts over the 90 minutes of “Brecht by Brecht” would be hard to source even by a Brecht scholar, and can feel overwhelming. But together they ultimately offer a sharp taste of Brecht’s blunt, bitter, sardonic brilliance.
The revue, which TBTB Theater is presenting at A.R.T./ NY Theatre through November 20, has a starry provenance. George Tabori, who translated and adapted Brecht’s work for Broadway and beyond, put it together in 1962, when it was performed by an extraordinary ensemble that must have felt like a family affair: It included Kurt Weill’s widow, the celebrated performer Lotte Lenya, Tabori’s then-wife, the great actress Viveca Lindfors, and the famous husband and wife team of Eli Wallach and Ann Wallach.
The current company is noteworthy in its own way. Founded in 1979 as Theater by the Blind, and changing its name in 2008 to Theater Breaking Through Barriers to reflect an expanded mission, TBTB bills itself as “the only professional Off-Broadway theater organization dedicated to advancing artists and developing audiences of people with disabilities.” The theater has added a subtitle to this piece: “A Celebration of Life in Defiance.” It’s not a stretch to see the nine members of the cast living in defiance as well….defying expectations. If it’s difficult to point to any particular cast members as standing out, that’s in part because of the quick-hit, ensemble nature of the show — and in part because they all stand out.
In a note in the program, Nicholas Viselli, the show’s director and the theater’s producing artistic director, explains that TBTB first produced “Brecht on Brecht” in 2002, shortly after 9/11, because they felt an echo between the dark times that Brecht lived through and what we were going through then. They decided to restage the work last year, he implies, because dark times had returned – but their plans were delayed until now…when there are even more dark times.
The show, to be clear, is not intended to cheer you up. Even the lighting design is dark throughout. Brecht, who died in 1956 at the age of 58 having spent his life using art as a political weapon – against the Nazis, against capitalists, against “bourgeois art” — could probably not have gotten a gig as a modern-day motivational speaker. Here is his attempt, which cast member Ann Flanigan recites in the show, to personify an optimist:
“I am fully convinced that the weather will be fine tomorrow, that sunshine follows the rain, that my neighbor is fond of his daughter, and my enemy is a mean man. …. Nor will you ever hear me say that things used to be great.”
His sarcastic tone is most often paired with a grim outlook on a life – a life that for most of the people he writes about is full of poverty and oppression. –
Anita Hollander portrays a mother who says:
“My young son asks me: Should I learn mathematics? I ought to tell him: No. The world is rough. That two hunks of bread are more than one, you will notice soon enough.”
In a scene where the government has ordered the burning of all subversive books, Stephen Drabicki portrays a writer who is alarmed and resentful – but not for the reason you might have expected:
“Burn me! You left me out! You can’t do that to me! Have I not always reported the truth in my books? And now you treat me like a liar. I order you: Bum me!”
I write that these actors “portray” roles, but most of the moments in the show are fleeting, with little to no introduction. It’s rarely clear whether a particular pithy line or an exchange of dialogue or a parable comes from a play or a poem or a novel or an essay or a random remark to a reporter.
There are a few exceptions. The few biographical tidbits about Brecht in “Brecht on Brecht” are mostly delivered – craftily, I thought – in a tape by Brecht himself in the testimony he was forced to give in front of the House Unamerican Activities Committee in 1947. Brecht, a committed Marxist who was living at the timie on West 73rd Street in New York, “left for Switzerland the next day,” as cast member Scott Barton informs us.
One of the songs needs no introduction: “Mack The Knife” from Threepenny Opera. Most of the half dozen other songs — Barbara Song, Pirate Jenny, Alabama Song, – could have used some introductory patter. This isn’t that kind of revue.
But in other ways, the TBTB production of “Brecht on Brecht” goes far beyond most theater in orienting the audience. The actors one by one describes what they look like and what they’re wearing, and the entire show is accompanied by open captions. (Song scenes and songs are also sign-interpreted by company member Stephen Drabicki.) One leaves the show wondering why every theater doesn’t take these simple steps toward greater accessibility.
Brecht on Brecht
At A.R.T./New York through November 20, 2021
A celebration of Brecht through his poems, stories, songs and plays
Arranged and Translated by George Tabori; Directed by Nicholas Viselli
Musical Direction by Dionne McClain-Freeney
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Bert Scott (Set/Lighting Design), Courtney E. Uruyo (Costume Design), Eric Nightengale (Sound Design), Samuel J. Biondolillo (Projections Design), Eric Nightengale (Production Manager), Christine Lemme (Production Stage Manager), Arthur Atkinson (Assistant Stage Manager) and Steve Asher (General Manager).
Cast: Fareeda Ahmed, Scott Barton, Stephen Drabicki, Ann Flanigan Anita Hollander, Dionne McClaine-Freeney, Anne Marie Morelli, Sean Phillips, Pamela Sabaugh
All performances will be open captioned, and audio described