A Deep Brecht

Can Poor B.B. Still Affect Our Alien Nation?

Translating Brecht--having done six of the plays, I know--is a hell with exceptional torments even for that tormenting line of work. Though the tone may be lofty, the words are of the simplest. And as a character in Roundheads remarks, "Einfach ist nicht billig"--simple doesn't mean cheap. In English, translation has let Brecht down more than most European authors precisely because the challenges he offers are wider ranging as well as more difficult. Adaptors who catch the theatrical saltiness unwittingly strain out the poetic pepper; academics, busily measuring the exact ingredients, often omit the flavor altogether. The metaphor may seem ironic, given Brecht's famous hatred for "culinary" theater, but that's precisely the point. Where the usual play is either greasy junk food or overcooked banality, a Brecht play should always be a memorable feast.

As the six Fringe Brechts I sampled tended to demonstrate, feasts aren't easy to prepare; translators aren't the only ones whose fussing can spoil the broth. Academia has done its evil work brutally well with Brecht: With few exceptions, the young directors neither heard nor saw his dramatic poetry, viewing him alternately as a fount of sacred abstraction and a swinish rub-your-noses-in-it thug.

Not that good things weren't scattered about: The two most obfuscatory productions, Versuche Ensemble's Drums in the Night and Caucasian Chalk Circle,had cool, spidery music by Derek Bermel; four or five good actors weren't totally lost in the shuffle of Ted Shaffner's self-upstaging direction. Matthew Earnest's Puntila, a mishmash that took far too much of its tone from the director's last name, had fine a cappella singing (though in Finnish!) and some strong acting, notably William Cook's Matti. Tentatively staged and weakly cast, Elizabeth Bell-Haynes's Antigone sustained a dignity through which the text could speak, in Judith Malina's good, feisty translation. Leland Patton's Roundheads,in contrast, began with a text doubly maimed--by translator's ineptitude and Moscow 1930s censorship--and systematically made it worse with bad cuts, foolish interpolations, and the trashiest playing style of the lot, though even this didn't conceal two or three budding talents.

Paul Zablocki's Baal, in the goodish Bentley-Esslin version, came closest to a sustained performance. He underscored too heavily, let his lead pontificate, and too often settled for caricature. But his was the only company that looked cast rather than scraped together, and the only staging, except for Antigone, in which event came first and attitude later. Baal is a young writer's fantasy that predates the theories. "Bad" and "asocial" like its poet-hero, it matches the Fringe spirit, and the young cast caught its feelings, especially Sarah Roberts as Sophie Barger. Brecht's theories may be dead; he, at 100, never seemed more alive.

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