by Todd O'Dowd
Iconic German playwright Bertolt Brecht was a man of infinite contradictions. He was a Marxist who believed in revolution, but never participated. He was a traditionalist and moralist, but lived a personal life that many would find amoral. He valued his contributors, particularly his groundbreaking female collaborators that he helped enfranchise, but made damn sure that when it was time to give credit it only went to him. It’s these vast contradictions that serve as the engine of the new play Rehearsing Failure, getting a fantastic production at The Southern from Theatre Novi Most.
Taking place in the summer of 1947 in Los Angeles, the piece sees Brecht (Pearce Bunting) living in exile while in the throes of opening his revised version of The Life of Galileo (the famous American premiere with Charles Laughton in the title role) and on the eve of his famous testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Surrounding Brecht were the three women who shared his life; romantically and professionally. First there was his wife Helene Weigel (Barbara Berlovitz), the famous German actress and eventual artistic director of the famed Berliner Ensemble. Then there is the playwright and translator Elisabeth Hauptmann (Annie Enneking), who was not only Brecht’s lover (who was living with Brecht and Weigel at the time) but also his frequent (and frequently uncredited) co-writer. Rounding out his trio of lovers was the Danish director, journalist, and archivist Ruth Berlau (Sara Richardson) who lived in a tent near Brecht’s house when she and Weigel were fighting. As if this wasn’t a crowded house, Brecht is haunted by the ghost of his whip-brandishing younger self (Billy Mullaney) who is utterly disgusted with the shell of a man he has become in his younger self’s eyes.
Watching Rehearsing Failure, I was constantly made aware of the fact that I was watching a play; which is a good thing since one of the core tenants of the Brechtian epic theatre style was that the audience should never forget at any time that it is watching a play. But there was a sense of unease with playwright Cory Hinkle’s script that I could not put my finger on until analyzing it much later. While I am grateful that this story highlights the many contributions Berlau, Hauptmann, and Weigel brought to the table, I felt that it did so at the expense of any nuance of Brecht as a character. Between the script, the direction, and the playing of the piece, Brecht is rendered as eitehr an oversexed chauvinistic man-child, or a lumbering buffoon who can’t solve his problems in front of him. I get that this is the whole point of Brechtian theatre (not for nothing did he refer to his works as “teaching plays”), and I am very appreciative at the lesson these three women are teaching us, but in this case I would have liked a little more fleshing out of Brecht as a character as a counter-balance; even if it would be slightly against the tradition.
That said, whatever minor quibbles I might have with the script were washed aside by a thrilling production. It’s fitting that a play about Brecht would use the epic theatre techniques that he (and Weigel, and Hauptmann, and Berlau, and others) developed, and director Lisa Channer and her production team (scenic design Sam Johns, costume designer Cole Bylander, and in particular the amazing lighting designer Heidi Eckwall) have created a jaw-dropping theatrical experience that has to be seen. From having the audience seated on the stage to using every inch of the theater in the staging (including a hilarious rehearsal scene of Galileo where the women are using the normal audience chairs as the audience watching the rehearsal) to creating some stunning staging moments that also serve as sly in-jokes to anyone familiar with Brecht and his works (such as the opening number, which is staged as a genderbent echo of the opening of Mother Courage and Her Children), this production is filled with some of the most inventive staging I’ve seen in a long time. Channer and her company have been developing the piece since its original version in 2008, and that scrupulous re-examination over the years has allowed her and her team to take some genuine risks, with the result that everything looks and sounds just right (especially the last part thanks to sound designer Dan Dukich, who also co-wrote all of the on-point songs with Annie Enneking).
It’s that rigorousness of development that has given Channer a fantastic ensemble who are so in tune with the material and each other that they can use the Brechtian epic theatre techniques and build compelling performances out of it that are of a piece with the style yet transcend it. Pearce Bunting is perfect as Brecht; a lumbering, temperamental, charismatic man whose real genius is using exactly what he needed from his collaborators at any time, but couldn’t deal with them afterwards. This stands in sharp relief from his chauvinistic, sexy younger self, played to eerie perfection by Billy Mullaney. But of course, this story is about the women and it’s hard to think of a better trio of actresses in these roles; each of whom happens to be an acclaimed actress in the Twin Cities in her own right. Barbra Berlovitz is everything you could ask for as Helene; by turns warm, imposing, smart, funny, commanding, and more than capable of keeping her husband’s affairs (artistic or otherwise) in order. Annie Enneking is sensational as the too-smart-and-talented-for-her-own-good Elisabeth, full of a steely resolve that eventually got Elisabeth some of the credit she deserved. As Ruth, Sara Richardson is smart, sexy, resourceful, and not afraid to rip Brecht a new one when necessary (as in the gut wrenching scene when Ruth confronts Brecht about their son who died two days after being born).
In a way, it’s a shame that Brecht is in the show as these three characters (and these three actresses) are so compelling that we want to spend more time with them together, and three of the best scenes in the show do just that. In addition to the hilarious rehearsal scene where all three women are giving a poor actor so many notes that his eyes cross, there’s the first scene when we see a typical day at Brecht’s house – with Helene cooking, Ruth taking pictures, Elisabeth rewriting the Galileo script, and all three just hanging out and discussing Brecht’s upcoming HUAC testimony. But nothing could prepare the audience for the “Effigy” scene, where Elisabeth, Helene, and Ruth turn into a punk rock trio, with Helene on bass and Elisabeth on lead guitar (a nice nod and wink to Enneking’s work as the lead singer as the band Annie and The Bang Bang).
It’s odd that Theatre Novi Most would title this piece Rehearsing Failure. Oh, to be sure, it was a dark time – personally as well as professionally – for Bertolt Brecht. After his testimony to the HUAC committee, he and his brood would return to Germany to launch the Berliner Ensemble, where they would produce his works. And just like the wandering playwright, Novi Most has used its years of gestation to create an arresting, beautiful, and necessary piece of theatre.
Theatre Novi Most’s production of Rehearsing Failure is playing at various times in repertory at The Southern Theater (located at 1420 Washington Ave S in Minneapolis) through February 22, as part of the opening cohort of the Southern’s ARTshare program. Tickets are $24 for the general public and can be purchased through the Southern’s website.
Photo Credit: Bill Prouty