We’ve all heard the adage, “behind every great man, there stands a great woman”. Well, Bertolt Brecht heavily relied on the guidance and support of three great women to build his theatrical career, and none of them received the recognition she deserved, either during or after her time.
In the name of bringing those women out from behind Brecht’s shadow, Theatre Novi Most and director Lisa Channer have created Rehearsing Failure. This is a true labor of love, having gone through three different incarnations over the past six years. The thought and research are clear in all of the show’s interwoven elements, from Cory Hinkle’s script, to Heidi Eckwall’s beautiful lighting, to the use of the Southern Theater’s vast space and the interplay of music, choreography and projections. All of this, on top of some truly notable performances from the entire cast, come together to create a portrait of an unequal collaboration between a famous man and his talented wife and mistresses, all struggling to make a life in exile in southern California.
This is an intellectually rich play with none of the academic coolness that you’d expect from a biography. Like its characters – who are playwrights and directors themselves – it is a hot-blooded and sexually-charged play, driven by the urge to create socially relevant art.
Rehearsing Failure flits between scenes inside the Brecht/Weigel household, glimpses of a rehearsal process, and new songs by Annie Enneking and Dan Dukich, whose music accompanies much of the play. Each moment is an evocative, often poetic, encapsulation of the interpersonal tensions that arise through the ensemble creation process. Yet despite the play’s poetry, I felt like there was something rough around the edges, where the play’s commitment to brevity may have left something missing from its argument.
Performing Brecht as Brechtian
Barbra Berlovitz, for instance, gives a captivating performance as Helene Weigel, Brecht’s wife, playing both hostess and mother to the entire household (Brecht included). She is a fascinating figure who we want to understand, but she refuses all of our attempts to get into her head, stating from the outset that focusing on a character’s inner motivations “reduces the epic to the everyday”. Instead, we should focus on the characters’ economic, social and artistic survival.
This is consistent with the style of Brechtian epic theater, which constantly reminds us that we are watching a play. We learn what the characters want us to know about them, since we can see only how they act, not how they are (if you can even claim that a stage character can have a true internal life separate from that of the actor).
The character of Brecht himself corroborates this way of looking at theater, musing that he is a truer version of himself when performing than he is when simply being. Nowhere is this truer than when both Brecht’s younger and older selves are on stage together. While Billy Mullaney sensuously caresses his bassoon as the lean, leather jacket-clad young Brecht, Pearce Bunting sways his hips behind him in a perfectly awkward incarnation of an older man reliving his youth. In two very different performances of the same man we get a realer, more complete picture of both the Casanova and the curmudgeon.
In the same way, the women act themselves into existence in the ways that they announce their arrivals on stage and carefully manipulate what the audience can and can’t see behind the artificial proscenium. Their use of song and choreography is often more expressive than standard dialogue; Annie Enneking’s song “Effigy” is a total release of frustration while, as Brecht’s mistress Ruth Berlau, Sara Richardson performs her sexuality to set herself apart from the other women. The film projections by Kevin Obsatz – which are often cut off by walls or chairs – primarily serve to highlight just how much hinges on these actors’ ability to display themselves as they choose.
Who gets the last word
All of these characters’ performances of self are fully in keeping with Weigel’s argument about epic theater painting with a broader brush. I think my niggling sense of dissatisfaction comes from the fact that I’m not sure that the play as a whole actually buys into this thesis as much as the characters do, since we do actually get a glimpse into the inner motivations of one character: Brecht. By portraying him with two actors, by giving him monologues about his virility and his anxiety about his upcoming testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, the play gives us a deeper sense of Brecht’s internal life than it does of any of the female characters.
This might seem like an academic argument, but all theater is politics. It is a problem that in a play about the collaboration and sacrifice of the women behind Brecht’s theatrical career, the greatest insights were still about Brecht. There is some fascinating biographical information about Ruth, Helene, and Elisabeth in the program notes, but very little of it is referenced on stage. I always appreciate a concise play, but here I wanted to know more about these women.
I am honestly not sure if it would have been possible to add more content without diluting the mesmerizing images that Rehearsing Failure conjures up. And it does give credit where credit is due. Yet when the play ended with a recording of Brecht’s actual, historical voice, I was reminded of another unfortunate adage: “To the victor go the spoils.” As long as we’re retelling history, I wonder. . . is it possible to put Brecht in a play without giving him the last word?