Adam Milano (MAN) Marianne Tatum (Bookseller)
By Dierdre Donovan
said New York theater snoozes during the summer months? With the Potomac
Theatre Project/NYC returning to the Atlantic Theatre Company for its 32nd
season with three provocative works--George Tabori’s Brecht on Brecht, a
quartet from Howard Barker’s Possibilities, and Caryl Churchill’s
BBC teleplay The After-Dinner Joke—theater in the Big Apple is alive and
you have never seen Tabori’s Brecht on Brecht performed on stage, seize
the day and go to this new outing. It is PTP’s first attempt at staging the classic
and the company performs it with panache. This Brechtian collage draws from a
wide swath of the master’s poetry, public utterances, written prose, and is
peppered with his writings for musical theater. We also get to listen to
fragments of recorded transcripts of Brecht’s appearances before the House of
Un-American Activities Committee, which cue in certain scenes. Yes, it adds
authentic political edge to the performance and effectively contextualizes the
play in a specific historical time period.
chief theme is human oppression, colored by the horrific events of World War II
and its aftermath. Is the piece dated? Well, yes and no. The work points to
a specific historical era but also can speak to our own political times, with
you-know-who in the Oval office.
Brecht on Brecht, the company arrives on stage in a grocery cart, with
clownish red noses affixed to their faces. A beat later, they shed their red
noses and step into other personas, meeting the dramatic demands of the
moment. The piece is more playful than pedantic, and more effective for being
so. Brecht, who often referred to theater as a laboratory, believed his epic
theater could be employed as an agent for change. And with this current
iteration of Brecht on Brecht on the boards, it can invite you to
ponder, once again, the purpose and reach of theater.
theatergoers will easily recognize the “Ballad of Mack the Knife” and “Surabaya
Johnny” (and perhaps sing along with performers Harrison Bryan and Carla
Martinez as each croons their respective song), they also will find food for
thought in the less-familiar prose of “Questions from a Son” and an excerpt
from “Cantata from Lenin’s Death,” which employ satire and a major political
figure to get their message across.
a program note, director Jim Petosa borrows Brecht’s own words to illuminate
the artistic impulse behind his epic theater: “Art is not a mirror held up to
reality/but a hammer with which to shape it.” True, Brecht on Brecht doesn’t
have the dramatic heft of Cabaret with it gender-bending Emcee and the
backdrop of the Kit Kat Klub. But in its own free-wheelin’ manner, it
does alert us to the slippery slopes of politics and how to keep our eyes open
to the dangers of our political times.
& The After-Dinner Joke
repertory with Brecht on Brecht on a second evening are four parables
from Howard Barker’s decalogue of short plays The Possibilities and
Caryl Churchill’s BBC teleplay The After-Dinner Joke. What is
particularly delicious about this double-bill is how the plays become a virtual
house of mirrors for each other, with Barker and Churchill’s works both trafficking
in irony, satire, and subversiveness.
by Richard Romagnoli, the Barker quartet is a good sampling of the playwright’s
“Theater of Catastrophe,” a term the author coined to describe his jagged-edged
drama. Romagnoli frames the playlets with snippets of Barker’s poems, which
serve as prologue, bridge, or epilogue to the work in question. The Prologue
proper seemed to paste some harmony into the air with the line: “Art brings
chaos into order.” But after watching the first Barker sketch The
Unforeseen Consequences of a Patriotic Act, one might have serious
doubts about a happily-ever-after ending. In this piece, we meet the Biblical
Judith (Kathleen Wise) who decapitates the head of Holofernes and subsequently
saves the Israelites from the Assyrians. Unlike the Biblical tale, however,
Judith acts with such sangfroid as she murders Holofernes that one can only
wonder about her emotional and spiritual life. Go figure. The second skit Reasons
for the Fall of Emperors is equally blood-chilling in its depiction of Czar
Alexander of Russia (Jonathan Tindle). Here the whimpering Russian ruler must
be stripped naked by his underlings before he can discover his true authority.
Is this some new-fangled form of sado-masochism? Who knows. But if this
selection leaves you cold, the next offering Only Some Can Take the Strain
might replenish your faith (sort of) in humankind. It’s a peculiar yarn
about an old woman bookseller (Marianne Tatum) who’s hawking government banned
books but harbors deep misgivings on whether she should let the knowledge
imparted in their pages be passed on to just anybody. This tale comes with a
twist and some comic relief on the serious issue of censorship. The last
sketch She Sees the Argument But is a hilarious spoof on fashion, the
female form, and the supposed immorality of a slightly-raised hemline. Among
other things, this piece points to the entrenched double standard in our
culture, with the world mostly viewed through a testosterone-tinged lens.
Selby (Tara Giordano) Passenger (Adam Milano)
evening wraps up with Churchill’s The After-Dinner Joke, directed by
Cheryl Faraone. In it, we meet a young corporate secretary Selby (Tara
Giordano) who decides to resign from her job and start investing her time in
charitable works. Her naïveté comes to the fore, however, when her boss Mr.
Price (Jonathan Tindle) points out to her how philanthropy and politics are
closely intertwined in the real world. The piece offers more than a few belly
laughs, lessons on capitalism, and more. Yes, it’s a trifle compared to other
weightier Churchill dramas. But I must add that it was a treat after watching
the leaden Off-Broadway production of her Light Shining in Buckinghamshire earlier
Potomac Theater Project/NYC, in association with Middlebury College,
are always cooking up something to pique the interest of New York
theatergoers. Although the staging of all three works is Spartan, the ensemble
acting is impressive, with actors flexing their thespian muscles in all sorts
of mind-boggling directions. This is a rich bouillabaisse of Brecht, Barker,
and Churchill, with a generous dash of political truths tossed in.
the Atlantic Theater, Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street, Chelsea.
more information, visit www.PTPNYC.org or phone 866-811-4111.
time of Brecht on Brecht: approximately 1 hour and 40 minutes with no
time of Possibilities: 45 minutes
time of After-Dinner Joke: 60 minutes
double-bill of Possibilities & After-Dinner Joke is a two-hour evening with
a 15-minute intermission.)