by Judith Jarosz · August 15, 2014
Eugene Berthold Brecht (1898 – 1956) also known as Bertolt Brecht, was a German modernist playwright and a juggernaut in theater history, who both as a practicing dramatist and a visionary theorist, changed the face of modern theater. Directors, designers and dramatists were all influenced by Brecht's idea of an epic theatre in which narrative replaces plot, the spectator is turned into an observer rather than someone implicated in the stage action, and each scene exists for itself alone. Brecht's belief that drama should present moral and political ideas through action left its stamp on a huge range of plays. His prolific catalogue includes many works still known and produced today, including some of my favorites, The Threepenny Opera, Mother Courage and Her Children, Happy End, A Man's a Man, The Good Person of Szechwan & The Caucasian Chalk Circle. But along the path to legendary theater status, Brecht had many collaborators. These included wives, lovers & female assistants, some of whom played all three of those roles at one time or another.
This one women show written and performed by Katelin Wilcox, and directed by Jennifer Curfman, explores five of the women in Brecht’s lives who helped him significantly yet to this day remain largely unknown. In The Pawnbroker: Lies, Lovers and Bertolt Brecht Brecht comes across as a highly intelligent Rasputin who uses women as pawns for his own interests, and who despite being described as rather homely, and in one case, not even a good lover, manages to hold on to these female collaborators for long periods of time despite juggling them as sexual partners and “collaborating” in multiple pregnancies, births & painful abortions.
What kept these women with him and feeding him with their attentions and talents, and why do we not know more about them? This seems the purpose of the this piece which Wilcox carries out in an informative and entertaining way for about 80 minutes. Giving voice to these five women, Wilcox engages in imaginary conversations that reveal the elation, frustration, love, hate, defeat and victory that these women may have felt. These scenarios are well written and passionate. You cannot help feeling for these people and getting swept up in the emotional situations that they are in. You do…however, also wonder how they put up with them! But it was a very different time for women and all humankind, with Nazi Germany spreading its taint across the globe and women still in pre feminist subjugation as far as the choices available to them.
Curfman’s well-paced and clever direction makes full use of the tiny performance area with occasional added slides of photos and quotes on the back wall. Instead of switching into radically different voices or mannerisms to identify the different roles, she has Wilcox using simple props and costumes pieces that help make it clear who is who. It works well and most importantly makes you want to know more about these characters. Marianne Zoff (“Ma”): an Austrian opera singer & Brecht’s first wife, the proud Helene Weigel (“Helli”): Austrian actress, Brecht’s second wife, who ends up inheriting his estate and goes on to become the artistic director of the Berliner Ensemble after Brecht's death in 1956 and runs it until her passing in 1971. Elizabeth Hauptmann (“Bess”): German writer, Brecht’s key collaborator on the book and lyrics for Threepenny Opera, Margarete Steffin (“Grete”):German writer, Brecht’s key collaborator on most of his major works (Galileo, Szechwan, Courage), and Ruth Berlau (“Red Ruth”): Danish writer, director, actress and revolutionary, Brecht’s muse, key collaborator on Caucasian Chalk Circle, who suffers through electroshocks treatments after a breakdown. All of them were strong women who fell under the spell of this intriguing visionary. All deserve to be remembered for their contributions.