Ruination of Brecht

I’m gonna just jump right in on this. I’m still working out my blogging style for the new (in my mind) blog, with as little intro as possible, mostly because ALL of my time is borrowed time.

There is, as always, a lot more to this idea than I’m gonna explain, but basically Brecht wanted to stop our absorption with the story at key moments, take us out of the play, in order for us to pay attention a little bit more to the socio-political points he was making in his plays.

This was done with direct address, sure, but also with stuff like making sure that maybe a wire from one of the lights was hanging down, making sure that all the actors were still sitting around on stage when they weren’t in character, that sort of thing. He did this not just with the writing, but with the staging.

Weirdly, I’ve seen two plays in the last month that speak directly to this idea. One of them, Caucasian Chalk Circle, was… um… well, it’s pretty Brechtian, in that it was written by Bertolt himself.

I have to say, normally, I get super annoyed at companies in New York that feel like it’s okay to revisit the classics. (Or, in many cases, not even the classics, but rather, shows that some other real theater company made very famous in the last ten years, but that’s another blog…) We live in New York, we don’t need a community theater production company here. This is where we are supposed to continue the path of modern theater, where we are supposed to CREATE the theater that other companies re-create.

But the production I saw really made clear why it’s such a good idea to continually remind us of why the shoulders we stand on are made of such strong stuff. This was by far the best production of Chalk Circle I’ve ever seen, one of those productions where you can’t believe you get to be in the room with people who, clearly, should already be world famous.

And it was brilliant because they stayed true to the actual intent of this approach to theater, which is to invite and cajole the audience into a deeper understanding of the story and the circumstances. The fourth wall was broken constantly, the show was performed expertly in the round and was blocked inside and within the audience banks, and the music was breath-takingly *smart* and perfectly executed which led to such a celebratory atmosphere in the room, a sense of real accomplishment.

This relates directly to my previous post on naturalistic acting, because it couples with the same misunderstandings that occur when a production misunderstands the intentions of a particular style. The breaking down of the fourth wall has now slid into this horrible world of “brave” and “aggressive” theater, where people in the audience are forced to deal with people in the play in a way that isn’t inviting at all.

The aggressive nature of direct address now, the constant eye contact between the cast and the audience, may be thrilling to some audiences (I know my wife, in particular, was pleased that Jesse L. Martin did a fair amount of it in “Rent”, especially to cute girls in the $20 seats…) but I find it totally distasteful.

The other play I saw actually begs the question of Brecht’s usefulness in our current culture.

“Passing Strange” is a story of a young black kid who leaves his mom in Los Angeles to travel the world and become an artist, and in doing so finds a lot of emptiness and a complete paucity of truth. The story includes a narrator, identical to the young black kid, but now some thirty years older.

But… the narrator is played by the guy who wrote the play. And, one assumes, it is a true story. So, as horrible things happen to the characters, the audience is sickeningly aware that this is not a story, or an allegory… this stuff actually happened to *that dude right there*.

I can think of two movies, “The Break-up” and “Proof Of Life” where film audiences couldn’t stomach the movies because they knew what had happened between the lead actors. There was a TV show some years ago that starred Jennifer Grey as a character named “Jennifer Grey” – and the character had starred in Dirty Dancing and was the daughter of Joel Grey. That very quickly led to TV shows like “My Life on the D-list” where it makes more sense for Kathy Griffin to have cameras just follow her around than it does for her to waste time acting in a sit-com or trying to make movies.

On stage, we are spared a lot of this. We know each other but… not that well. I don’t know my very best friends as well as the TV watching world knows their reality TV stars. I saw my best friend in the world in a play a month ago, and although I laughed when he had to pull up his shirt, I honestly got lost in his character through the rest of the play.

But still, people seem to feel like it’s important to include their biographical information in the program or, very often, in the play itself. What would Brecht say if he saw “Passing Strange”? I mean, not only is there absolutely no set, no only is the cast on stage the entire time, sitting in the middle of the rock band, and not only does the narrator stop the show and talk to the audience about a bar that is in the very town where the show is playing… but the narrator is being played by the very guy that the things in the play HAPPENED TO.

And, for me, it’s over the line. I really enjoyed the play, but it’s a self-eating snake. When the narrator laments his mistakes, he says, “Isn’t it startling to wake up and realize that the person you are is based on the decisions made by an 18 year old… a stoned 18 year old”, and that would be a much richer sentiment if you weren’t looking at a guy who is starring in his own Broadway play.

I mean, he’s standing there in utter refutation of what he just said. Obviously, a stoned 18 year old decided to move to Amsterdam… but he’s standing there in the middle of a stage on Broadway in New York. OTHER DECISIONS WERE MADE AFTER THE DECISION HE’S REFERRING TO, so it kills the point.

Now, Chalk Circle proved that the theory is only part of the production. The truth is, it is a gorgeously written play. In both cases, these were plays that were directly and powerfully relate-able to my own life, a parent’s desperate need to keep a child safe and sated, and an artist who punishes himself for the decisions he made concerning his artistic life vs. his family obligations. But only the Brecht piece actually moved me, actually made me cry.

I guess the summation of the last two entries is that I want my theater to remain representational, I want some real distance between me and the people who are performing. Needless to say, I find improv comedy to be utter hell, but I still squirm a bit even when we’ve moved far closer to regular proscenium theater. This doesn’t mean that I can’t understand and be knocked out by the newer presentational theater, and it doesn’t mean that I find personal messages within a playwright’s work to be off-putting at all.

But I think we need to recognize that hyper-realistic acting and presentational producing are both reactions to a theater that was drenched in floor-to-ceiling sets stuck in a proscenium arch, and actors who had to shout to be heard in row triple Z. Every show we go to now, especially among the off-off community, needs to accept as a given that the performances will be intimate and the performance space will be spare, and maybe we need to respect the audiences need for a little bit of distance and theatricality.