The audience on the night of July 9 availed itself of the opportunity to enjoy “An Evening of Brecht,” sponsored by the Goethe Institut and the Arts Club of Washington. In the District’s historic James Monroe House, the event was introduced as a program of performances which would “show the full spectrum of Bertolt Brecht’s talent.” Brecht was a playwright without whose influence modern theatre would be unthinkable. Yet he was also a poet and song writer, and all facets of Brecht’s talents were brought together in what one organizer of the evening described as a “Brecht Parfait.”
Selections from Brecht’s poetry were read effectively by Joshua Weiner, who also provided some context. Mr. Weiner informed us that even in Brecht’s native Germany, the author’s oeuvre of some 2,000 poems has only recently been receiving much attention and that much of it has never been translated for English-speaking readers. “One of the reasons we always go back to Brecht is he is really funny,” Mr. Weiner reminded us. As evidence, he read Brecht’s “Obituary for XX,” in which Mr. Weiner (and presumably Brecht before him) invited audience members to replace “XX” with the name or names of their least favorite politicians. In addition to humorous moments, Brecht’s verse also betrays cynicism and an unexpected sensitivity to nature.
At one point in the evening, singer Christopher Gleason and singer/pianist Benjamin Hergenroeder performed selections from “The Three-Penny Opera,” Brecht’s most popular work in the US, and much of that is due to the music of Kurt Weill. Both artists played and sang — among other songs from the work — the “Moritat,” far better known (especially in Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darin recordings) as “Mack the Knife.” Messrs. Gleason and Hergenroeder are recent graduates from Catholic University of America, where they recently performed in “The Three-Penny Opera.”
A highlight of the evening was certainly selections from Robert McNamara’s staging of “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui,” currently playing at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in Washington, D.C. “Arurto Ui” is Brecht’s dramatic attempt to explain the rise of Hitler in American terms, to wit: an exciting gangster story in which a Hitler-like 1930’s Chicago mobster, one Arturo Ui, rises to enormous power in City Hall with the help of violent and murderous henchmen Givoli (representing Goebbels), Giri (symbolizing Göring), and Ernesto Roma (a clever play on the name of SA chief Ernst Röhm). Four scenes from the play were promised in the program, yet some seven parts of the play were performed! Some of the cast members from the current production were on hand, including Anne Nottage and Gori Olofun, but the part of Arturo Ui was played this evening by a non-member of the current staging, Ron Litman. Mr. Litman’s performance was outstanding, from channeling hoodlum accents from the 1930’s gangster films Brecht admired to goose-stepping into his part in order to remind us that gangster Arturo Ui is a stand-in for Hitler and his crimes against humanity.
Director McNamara himself humorously played a hammy stage actor hired by Ui and his gang to teach Arturo elocution. Mark Antony’s “friends, Romans, countryman” elegy from “Julius Caesar” is the means. Throughout “Arturo Ui,” in the selections performed for the Goethe Institut and in the full-scale production, references to and paradies of Shakespeare abound, for with Arturo Ui on the prowl in Chicago, “there’s something rotten in the state of Illinois!”
“I came to the cities in a time of disorder,” Mr. Weiner read from Brecht’s poem “To Those Born Later.” This line could just as well be from the “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny,” an opera written by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill which explores what attracts men and women to cities. A full-blown opera which takes enormous funds to stage, “Mahagonny” was represented in a coda to the Brecht evening in one songs performed in two distinct ways: “Alabama Song,” whose lyrics “show us the way to the next whiskey bar.” A clip from an operatic presentation at the Salzburg Festival was juxtaposed with an excerpt of the Doors performing a rock-and-roll flavored version at the Hollywood Bowl. In so doing, “An Evening with Brecht” closed successfully with the organizers’ goal of showing the German playwright and poet as a unique literary figure, equally at home in the worlds of “elite” and “popular” culture.
While “An Evening with Brecht” was a one-night performance which has now receded into memory, we refer interested readers enthusiastically to the final performances of Scena Theatre’s production of “The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui,” running through July 14.