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End of a Brechtian Era

The Berliner Ensemble makes one last tour before the theater founded by the playwright reinvents itself.

July 04, 1999|KRISTIN HOHENADEL | Kristin Hohenadel writes about arts and culture

BERLIN — On Bertolt-Brecht-Platz, near Friedrichstrasse on the edges of the Spree River, the Berliner Ensemble is closed for renovations. The velveteen seats of this opulent Neoclassical theater are swathed in plastic; its grounds are strewn with chunks of glass, remnants of wall, planks of wood; workmen pound out a symphony with power drills and sledgehammers. In many ways, the state of Germany's most famous theater, founded 50 years ago by Bertolt Brecht and his wife Helene Weigel, is a an easy metaphor for life today in Berlin. The new capital of reunified Germany is still covering its shrapnel scars and filling in with shopping malls the empty landscape once occupied by the famous wall. But the past rides the city's shoulders. Architects' models aside, how it really will look after all this cosmetic surgery is anyone's guess.

In its day the B.E. (as it is known) was the voice of Brecht, a place where he explored the political questions most dear to his East German heart in such classic works as "Mother Courage," "Galileo" and "The Threepenny Opera," a collaboration with Kurt Weill. Brecht became one of the most influential playwrights in the world, creating a body of work that stood up against Nazism. He was known for his interactive "epic theater," which created what he called an "alienation effect" by forcing reactions from his audience and not allowing them to sit back and passively watch the action. In post-reunification Germany, the burning question for the B.E. has become how to keep the theater from turning into a Brecht museum as well as how to preserve the spirit of Brecht's political theater.

The B.E. has toured the world, from Mexico to Istanbul to Argentina. But last week, when the company performed at UC Berkeley it was the ensemble's first visit to the United States. They brought Brecht's 1941 "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui," a parable about the evils of Fascism set in 1920s Chicago during Al Capone's era. The show, performed in German with supertitles, travels to UCLA's Freud Playhouse on Wednesday for four performances through the weekend, on the final leg of its first American tour.

It was the Cold War, says Stephan Suschke, 40, the company's current artistic director, that kept them away this long. "Now, 10 years after the Cold War, the American people I think are more relaxed because Communism is an old bad dog," Suschke says.

A co-production with the Goethe Institute, the tour is being promoted as the last performances of this incarnation of the Berliner Ensemble. In the 10 years since German reunification, the B.E. has struggled to find its identity. It has seen a series of directors, a jumble of artistic visions. In January 2000, the former artistic director of Vienna's Burgtheater, Claus Peymann, will take over the company. And while Peymann refused to comment on his plans for the future, it is widely assumed that the famous director will eschew the traditional Brecht repertory, commissioning younger and newer playwrights to develop a new repertory for the B.E. High turnover is customary when a new director comes in; many of the Berliner Ensemble's stable of actors, some of whom have been with the company for decades, are expected to leave after the tour, along with some two-thirds of the management staff.

The Berliner Ensemble that Los Angeles will view on Wednesday night is the closest thing to Brecht's original that the world is likely to see again.


It is somewhat fitting that the Berliner Ensemble should make its American debut with a piece that was originally intended for American audiences. Brecht wrote the play in exile in 1941 in Finland, and polished it in Santa Monica, where he lived from 1941-47. He had come to America, like many other German Jewish artists and intellectuals, to escape persecution. Brecht's American dreams were dashed in Southern California, where he failed to find success in Hollywood, let alone on the New York stage, and he lacked the influence he had enjoyed in Germany. After being called in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947, he returned to East Berlin, founding the B.E. shortly thereafter.

"Arturo Ui" tells the story of a guy from the Bronx who goes to Chicago and, with a group of thugs, uses violence, corruption and all other means to establish a monopoly on cauliflower. The play was never produced in Brecht's lifetime but contains an obvious sendup of Hitler and a warning message to Americans about the dangers of Fascism. It opened in Stuttgart in 1958, two years after the playwright's death, and was a critical and popular success, touring the world--everywhere except the country for which it was written. In 1995, the late Heiner Muller, then artistic director of the B.E., revived the production, making it the most successful production to date during this post-reunification period, and also touring it widely.

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