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Burning Coal Artistic Director Jerome Davis weighs in on topics theatrical and otherwise.....NEW RULE: ONLY RESPONSES THAT SHOW FULL NAME OF BLOGGER WILL BE POSTED ON THIS SITE. - JD

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Having seen the Meryl Streep/Kevin Kline MOTHER COURAGE in Central Park last week, I am wondering what makes directors, even onse as estimable as George Wolfe, so afraid of Brecht? The production was sound, with very strong acting and a nicely modernized (without being cloying) adaptation from Tony Kushner, but the staging was as if Wolfe saw Brecht across the street and ran the other way. Why? A night later I watched the stunning new SWEENEY TODD (on Broadway, of all places), directed by the experienced but relatively unheralded Scotsman John Doyle. I am happy to report that this intimate chamber version of Sondheim's masterpiece got Brecht right in a way that Wolfe and the Shakespeare Festival failed to. Nothing onstage was unused. Most ideas were conveyed in a non-literal sense. Actors played two and three roles with little fanfare or change of costume. A woman played Perrelli, a tiny white coffin stood in for all sorts of things: a chair, the shrunken soul of the leading man, and everyone remained in full view of the audience, almost without exception, throughout. The actors all played musical instruments, often while acting or changing scenery and there was no orchestra hiding in the pit pretending not to be there. In short, this was a vision of the future of "Broadway musicals" - a way in which the form can extricate itself from the bloodless (no pun intended) mediocrity that most of it has become in the last few decades. Which brings me back around to my original question: why are directors so afraid to completely try Brecht, and why are our critics so afraid to acknowledge work that consistently confronts his radical ideas. Of course, those ideas were radical 70 years ago when they were first coming into the consciousness of theatre audiences and practitioners. Are they so radical, so difficult to consistently accomplish, that we are not yet ready to face up to the truths inherent in Brecht?

7 Comments:

Blogger Kendall said...

Hi Jerry! I also saw MOTHER COURAGE in Central Park, and good question. I thought it was an excellent production in every respect, but you are right that it wasn't entirely Brechtian. Maybe they feared the fate of the recent THREEPENNY OPERA on Broadway. I saw it a couple months ago, and it was very true to Brechtian style, and I loved it. The simplicity in design / direction was brilliant and really put the focus where it belonged: on the characters and the emotional journey. It was thrilling and it was fresh. But it was terribly received by critics and audiences, and it closed. Maybe it was too original?

There is a theater company in Boston creating a new piece based on research that shows that over three-fourths of Brecht's work was written by one of his mistresses. I don't know how the research was conducted, but I think it's an interesting notion.

And yes, I have to second your thoughts on SWEENEY-- one of the most thrilling nights in the theater I've experienced!

Kendall

3:21 PM  
Blogger timxx said...

Interesting comments-
My question is this: I've always been fascinated by Brecht, but I feel that in some ways I AM afraid of him. I wonder if most audiences today, outside of (insert Big city here) won't be completely turned off by such non-traditional staging.I've always been really interested in bringing a new audience to the fold, and I guess I feel all things Brechtian might send these "unninitiated" folks fleeing for the exits. What do you think?

12:33 PM  
Blogger Jerome Davis said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1:53 PM  
Blogger Jerome Davis said...

Timxx, I can only speak for myself but nothing thrills me more than a consistent, well-considered production, no matter what the "philosophy" behind it. I don't hold Brecht as the be-all and end-all God of Theatre or anything like that, I just think that his ideas have LASTED for a good long time and yet they remain largely unexplored, even in the work of our more prominent stage directors and I think that is a shame. What MIGHT be? That is the question! I also agree that urban audiences might be MORE likely to accept Brecht than non-urban ones, but isn't that because they've been exposed to Brecht more - and isn't that a strong argument for beginning to expose all our audiences to his ideas, if only to see what might be?

1:55 PM  
Blogger timxx said...

I can dig that...

4:42 PM  
Blogger rick8 said...

It is interesting to me that a production featuring an avowed Brechtian like Tony Kushner would be allowed to wander in a different direction. Did you get to see Moises Kaufman's Macbeth? Kaufman is probably doing the closest thing to Brechtian theatre of any major theatre artist in the country right now, although he is even a synthesis of Brecht, Piscator and the occasional hint of Meyerhold...

I tend to be suspicious of too much theory but for me, Brecht comes closest to what I want to do in the theatre because (how's this for a contradiction) he's so inherently theatrical in his nontheatricality...Does that make sense? Harkening back to Kushner's "letting the wires show". Brecht and a sort of presentational style allows for us to present to our audience a way of playing that completely gets us away from trying to compete with film and tv, there is something uniquely theatrical about watching an actor put on a hat and changing characters, take off the hat to become someone else, and never really disappear into those roles...My favorite theatre I have done (Laramie, Gross Indecency) all had a kind of theatricality without relegating the work to pretty sets and costumes and actors losing themselves in the role...

Mr. X, I don't think that kinda work is a turnoff to the novice theatre-goer, if anything they tend to sort of marvel at the difficulty that is made (when done right) look almost effortless. Our pseudo-Brechtian production of The Story last season was a surprise hit for us and I think the style had just as much to do with that as the actual story of The Story...

Thanks for the essay Jerry, I look forward to reading more...

Peace
Rick St. Peter
Artistic Director
Actors Guild of Lexington

3:46 PM  
Blogger jim9991 said...

I disagree with the statements above. I have been a theatre goer for about 12 years and I would say I'm still a "novice", and I firmly believe that Brecht got it wrong. I love live theatre when its performed so I can connect to it emotionally and intellectually. I do not enjoy being "shocked" by staging that makes no sence and costumes and makeup that pull you out of the show. I saw the "Sweeney Todd" and it was well, BAD. The only thing keeping me from asking for my money back was the singing talent. I must admit I do not likr it when directors ruin a great show just to make the audience mad. That's not good theatre, and that's apparently what Brechtian style is. I see your doing 1776 I hope your not going to change it as well.

2:17 PM  

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