Off-Broadway Review: PTP/NYC’s “Brecht on Brecht” at Atlantic Stage 2

 Photo: Christine Hamel (foreground) in “Brecht on Brecht.” Credit: Stan Barouh.

Photo: Christine Hamel (foreground) in “Brecht on Brecht.” Credit: Stan Barouh.

David Roberts

  • Chief New York Theatre Critic
  • Outer Critics Circle

“Brecht on Brecht” the theatrical collage of works by Bertolt Brecht first compiled by George Tabori in the early 1960s is appearing at Atlantic Stage 2 in repertory with “The Possibilities” and “The After-Dinner Joke” as part of PTP/NYC’s Season 2018. This is the Potomac Theatre Project’s thirty-second season in New York City. “Brecht on Brecht” features songs and scenes from Kurt Weill, Hanns Eisler, and Bertolt Brecht’s most famous collaborations, as well as first-hand accounts from Brecht himself and explores the socio-political and issues the playwright faced as an artist fleeing Nazism for exile in America.

The themes of anti-Semitism and xenophobia so relevant during the rise of the Third Reich are just as relevant in our current “dark times” splintered by xenophobia, anti-Semitism, nativism, racism, sexism, and homophobia. In both Brecht’s time and in the present socio-political climate, W. B. Yeats’ words ring with uncompromising truth: Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned;/The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”

In thirty-nine vignettes or scenes, the cast under the direction of Jim Petosa, perform eleven songs with lyrics by Bertolt Brecht and music by Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler. “Alabama Song” (sung by the company) is from “Little Mahagonny.” “Army Song” (sung by the company), “Death Message” (sung by Jake Murphy), “Barbara Song” (sung by the company), “Ballad of Mack the Knife” (sung by Harrison Bryan), and “Pirate Jenny” (sung by Christine Hamel) are all from “The Threepenny Opera.” “Tango Ballet” (sung by Jake Murphy and Carla Martinez), “Surabaya Johnny” (sung by Carla Martinez), and “Bilboa Song” (sung by the company) are all from “Happy End.”

Without referencing a specific actor, the members of the cast do not trust their material. Brecht’s songs are mini-operas with a complete story (libretto). The vocalists’ tasks are to understand those stories and relate their depth in song using the range of their craft. There is little need for histrionics but an overwhelming need for vocal range, rich modulation, and pristine interpretive style – all oddly missing in the performances. The same dynamics are relevant in the non-musical pieces like “The Jewish Wife” (performed by Christine Hamel) and “The Infanticide of Marie Farrar.” These narrative pieces also require the modulation of voice and rich interpretation. They are performed here without these rhetorical graces.

Hallie Zieselman’s set design, Joe Cabrera’s lighting design, and Annie Ulrich’s costume design serve the production well as does Ronnie Romano’s music direction and piano.

Although Bertolt Brecht understood the importance and power of the comedic, his writings are overwhelmingly dark and, like a sharp scalpel, cut deeply beneath the facia into the “guts” of the human condition. That darkness is absent in this “Brecht on Brecht.” Overall, the young cast seems unable to identify with the depth of despair that defines the fiber of Brecht’s weltanschauung. This and the director’s sometimes odd choices make the tone of this “Brecht on Brecht” more like that of a Brechtian “Godspell.” The performances skim the surface of the angst of Brecht, Kurt Weill, and Hanns Eisler leaving the grit and grime and ghastly shadows trapped beneath the weight of a cacophony of red clown noses. This is unfortunate given the consistent quality of PTP/NYC’s thirty-two seasons of engaging productions that have challenged audiences in “dynamic and provocative” ways. These are dark times. The center is not holding. Perhaps this is not the time for clowning around.

BRECHT ON BRECHT

The cast for “Brecht on Brecht” includes Harrison Bryan, Christine Hamel, Carla Martinez, Jake Murphy, Miguel Castillo, Olivia Christie, Sebastian LaPointe and Ashley Michelle.

The production team for “Brecht on Brecht” includes Ronnie Romano (Music Director and Pianist), Hallie Zieselman (Set Design), Joe Cabrera (Lighting Design), Annie Ulrich (Costume Design) and Alex Williamson (Production Stage Manager). Production photos by Stan Barouh.

Performances are Tuesdays - Sundays at 7:00 p.m., Saturdays - Sundays at 2:00 p.m., and select Wednesdays and Thursdays at 2:00 p.m. at Atlantic Stage 2 (330 West 16th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues). The schedule varies - for exact days and times visit www.PTPNYC.org. Tickets are $37.50, $22.50 for students and seniors and $20.00 for previews. Purchase online at www.PTPNYC.org or by calling 1-866-811-4111. For more info visit www.PTPNYC.org. Running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes without intermission.  

Photo: Christine Hamel (foreground) in “Brecht on Brecht.” Credit: Stan Barouh.