Laughter is the only medicine

Watching an evening of theater inspired by Bertolt Brecht could potentially be an exhausting and perplexing experience. Brecht’s concept of epic theater, according to which a play should provoke rational self-analysis and critical perspective, can inspire formal innovation, but also plays that are difficult to watch. Indeed, Brecht wanted the audience to think independently, and to effect social change. The Brooklyn Playwrights’ Collective is at an early stage in its project to write plays influenced by its favorite playwrights in alphabetical order; they are currently considering the work of Brecht. Their production, Beyond Brecht , includes plays that often attempt to mock classical theater (i.e. non-epic) and its reliance upon narrative and emotional stories, but which fail to provide inspiration for critical analysis. The influence of Brecht is most clear in the staging and structure of the plays, which use his devices for disrupting the illusions of storytelling to highlight the deliberate construction of a drama. These innovations include narrators that directly comment upon plot, interaction with the audience, self-conscious songs that break the flow of plot, and explanatory placards.

The first play performed, Fulana , might inspire independent thinking if the message was not so obvious. In Felipe Ossa’s play the title character is the embodiment of a capitalist agenda: an eager immigrant in a whorishly attractive French maid costume. The pitiful abuse of such persons is made clear, but is complicated by the abusive response of the oppressed. In the role of Fulana, Marisel Polanco carries herself with self-awareness and self-possession. Despite her assertiveness, the play’s plot and tone give little reason to doubt the crushing power of the American way of life. The narrative follows a familiar arc and the actors adhere to the stereotypes represented by their characters. The play hardly prods deeper consideration of the themes it introduces.

The second play, The Pithecanthropist (by Ed Malin), is the most energetic and philosophically engaging play of the evening. Using an overly self-conscious play-within-a-play it demonstrates the artifice of drama. In the play the leading character argues against romantic notions in favor of Darwinism. Played with impressive dryness by Chris Arruda, Prosper is a foppish intellectual who renounces the Romantic by donning an ape costume. That witty lines and an exaggerated accent creep through the mouth of an ape mask makes the device hilarious. To prove his theory, the self-proclaimed Pithecanthropist stages a drama that mocks knightly romances. Despite the uncharacteristic confusion of its characters, the story ends happily, undermining the argument of the play’s producer. It is a story with a mind of its own: the love of the characters brings resolution and mutiny against the creator.

The concept is strong, but constant campy jokes detract from the cleverness of the play. In particular, the rap songs are parodies so ridiculously bad that they are nothing more than that. Though the play mocks overwrought romances, it follows a reliable plot. Perhaps it represents a counter-argument to Brecht, making fun of the notion that drama could be used for political purpose. However, if the play did not include flights of illusionist fancy, there would be little left.

Some enjoyable use of Brecht comes in the interpretations of his concept of the “separation of elements.” In some of the plays, particularly The Resistible Rise of Fatlinda Paloka (by Marcy Wallabout), the actors deftly shift roles and registers. Playing an uptight Southern couple, Nick Palladino and Siobhan Doherty alternate between Seuss-like rhyming and carefully accented spite. Their bitterness is directed at the abrasive immigrant Fatlinda Paloka, whose eccentricities are humorously exaggerated by Erin Leigh Schmoyer. The acting is excellent, and the play is funny, but the underlying metaphor is hard to find. In a conclusion which arrives abruptly, Fatlinda’s blindly infatuated husband explicitly states a moral. That the meaning or purpose of this lesson is so unclear detracts from the play's better qualities.

A play with clearer direction, but less interesting style is Lucky in Love , written by Erin Browne. In a gesture to Brecht, placards list the action in each scene, but add little to the play. Several short scenes tell the story of unrequited love between female friends. The placards underscore the play’s dull straightforwardness. The characters and scenes aren’t fleshed out enough for the viewer to care, and the dialogue isn’t sufficiently meaty for contemplation.

The final play, “Sauté Your Face” (by Jerry Polner), consists of a good single punch line joke: a cooking show for ex-dictators in which instruction is command and brutality is art (or fruit salad). Mark Blackman energetically repeats the Generalissimo’s catchphrase, “I am great. You are crap,” but by the fourth time it is clear the joke has run its course. Fortunately, the playwright, unlike a self-loving dictator, knows when to cut things short.

In all of the plays the influence of Brecht’s formal contrivances is clear, but the underlying morality or the push for audience reflection is lacking. The plays don’t stimulate critical consideration of American society; rather, they highlight the difficulties in using this structure to interpret modern social problems. Though there are attempts to give “rational” purpose to these stories by acknowledging the artifice of the presentation, they are basically classical dramas. The commentary is too often an indictment, or the issue at hand too vaguely defined, to spark debate. If attending the show, expect to laugh some, but don’t expect an evening of provocative theater.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post