SAN DIEGO — From the very beginning of his career, Bertolt Brecht was a playwright passionately concerned with the events of his day. His message, which was sometimes Marxist and always pacifist, with pointed statements about what constitutes right and wrong in a troubled world, caused him first to flee Nazi Germany in 1933 and, 14 years later, America, after being called before Joseph McCarthy and the Committee on Un-American Activities.
The question is, can a writer so involved in his immediate political climate still have something to say 31 years after his death? The answer, given by "Brecht on Brecht," a literary-musical revue playing at the Bowery Theatre through March 7, is a resounding yes.
The material in "Brecht on Brecht" spans the years from 1919 to 1953. But though a half-century has passed since Brecht talked about book censorship, the dehumanization of war, the scientist selling out to authority and the poverty-stricken mother who, in despair, kills her baby, he is addressing problems that face us now.
Still, this is not an evening of dogmatic moralizing. Humor and songs, mostly from "The Threepenny Opera," lighten the lessons, and even the most propagandistic of pieces have a depth of characterization that shows, under the principles, that human lives are at stake.
In fact, one of the best moments in the show is from "Fear and Miseries of the Third Reich," a collection of pieces Brecht wrote when he still thought words might turn the tide against Hitler.
In this brief drama, just a few minutes long, a Jewish housewife married to a non-Jewish German doctor packs her suitcase, interrupting her work to make a series of calls to friends and family, in which it is clear that she is leaving her husband to spare him the ostracism that has already begun as a result of his being married to a Jew.
Robyn Hunt plays Deborah with a determination that shows how strength can be willed from even the most fragile of materials. Like a walking heartache, she shows the hurt, and then she shows how well she hides it.
But the invisible presence is Brecht himself who, even when he has a point to make, makes it from the inside out, saying more with his omissions than with his words.
The ensemble is, for the most part, a strong one, consisting of Hunt; J.S. Pearson, who is also the director and stage designer; Jeff Okey, so good as the young homosexual in "Bent" (still playing at the "early" 8 p.m. show preceding the 11 p.m. "Brecht on Brecht"); and Marta Zekan as the pianist and musical director.
The cast, however, fares better with drama and humor than they do with songs. Of the three singers, Okey has the surest voice, but all of them carry the music more on their thespian skills than on their vocal ones--which is not as bad as it sounds when you consider that Brecht's lyrics, as written to Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler's music, are crafted to tell stories. If one had to choose between actors and singers to perform them, actors are definitely the way to go. Still, it would have been nice to have both.
Hunt and Pearson have the best numbers, including a rendition of Mack and Jennys "love" song from "The Threepenny Opera," which they perform in wickedly cynical style, complete with a classically exaggerated tango, well choreographed by Margret Marshall. In this song, at least, all vocal sins are forgiven.
This is Pearson and Hunt's second go at "Brecht on Brecht;" they produced it five years ago for the then-existing San Diego Public Theatre. Their selection and arrangement of material is a little different from the original New York production as well as from their last one, but it works.
Unfortunately, one of the most interesting elements in the show--the interspersing of recorded testimony from Brecht's appearance before the House of Un-American Activities Committee--is also one of the most frustrating, because the quality of the tape is so poor. Much of what Brecht said is lost to the ear.
Pearson's direction, in all other ways, meets the peculiar challenges of the work. He takes what could be a fragmented evening and fuses it into a cohesive whole, largely by having those who are not talking watch with great intentness the one who is. By actively listening, the actors help focus the audience's attention and create a circuit of tension that is palpable and energizing.
John-Bryan Davis' costumes are simple but effective, as is Pearson's setting--three chairs, a stool, a small square table and a piano. The props are moved with disarming fluidity to change scenes from a tavern to a trial to a home and, sometimes, just to alter the aesthetic balance.
The most riveting part of the set, though, consists of the barbed wire background which belongs to "Bent." It is scheduled to be struck Feb. 22, but while here, it gives an ominous feeling of the milieu in which Brecht wrote. Never referred to by the actors, it is a reminder of the urgency of Brecht's message and the price of the failure to hear it.
"BRECHT ON BRECHT" Arranged by George Tabori from texts by Bertolt Brecht. Music by Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler. Directed by J.S. Pearson. Music direction by Marta Zekan. Costumes by John-Bryan Davis. Properties by Esperanza Gallardo. Sound by Lawrence Ozoka. Choreography by Margret Marshall. Stage manager is Loren E. Chadima. Additional translation by Kurt Reichert. Produced by special arrangement with Samuel French, Inc. With Robyn Hunt, Jeff Okey, J.S. Pearson and Marta Zekan. At 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday through Feb. 28; at 10 p.m. March 6 and 7. At the Bowery Theatre, 480 Elm St.