Most people probably know Bertolt Brecht more for his songs that became pop hits — "Mack the Knife" or "Alabama Song" — than his work on the stage. Make no mistake: The man was a between-the-world-wars punk rocker, shocking the establishment with confrontational and political acts of theater.
And like plenty of punk rockers, Brecht had his Hollywood phase. Fleeing the Nazis, Brecht and a trio of women who were his creative and personal partners ended up in Santa Monica. Sunny California suited none of them, as Theatre Novi Most's Rehearsing Failure proves.
The year is 1947. With the Nazis defeated, the United States government has turned to a fresh enemy: communists in America. This puts Brecht, an avowed supporter of communism, in danger.
As he rehearses his long-in-gestation play, The Life of Galileo, Brecht is called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which destroyed the careers of many American artists who found themselves on the wrong side of the post-war political divide.
That's the plot in the simplest terms, but what director Lisa Channer, playwright Cory Hinkle, and Theatre Novi Most have built is something entirely rearranged, remixed at every turn.
One scene may show us Brecht's domestic arrangements in Santa Monica, where his wife furiously chops cabbage while Brecht does nothing. The next may find his wife and the two other women who lived with, worked with, and loved Brecht breaking out into some furious riot-grrrl rock 'n' roll. And the finale, when Brecht goes before Congress to defend himself, essentially happens off stage. We hear part of Brecht's actual testimony, played on a scratchy old LP on a cheap portable turntable.
Even Brecht takes two forms throughout the play. One, the young Brecht (Billy Mullaney) is a cocky star, dressed in a black leather jacket and snapping a bullwhip when he first arrives.
The other, a contemporary Brecht (Pearce Bunting), has been broken down by the decade in exile from Germany and the general disinterest shown to his work in America; he's a burly boxer ready for what might be his last fight.
The women come off more as ciphers than characters, still existing in Brecht's shadow in a play intended to bring them to the foreground. Veteran actor Barbra Berlovitz does the best, as Brecht's wife. Sara Richardson and Annie Enneking don't get nearly as much space to fill out their characters, two women who were instrumental in Brecht's work from the 1920s through the '40s. We never understand what glues them to Brecht.
For this production, the audience has been moved out of the comfortable Southern seats and onto folding chairs and cushions onstage. At one of Brecht's rehearsals for The Life of Galileo, we become extras in the scene, watching as a befuddled American actor gets run through his paces by the angry director and his imposing trio of creative women.
This layering effect is the play at its best. The interrogation of the actor by Brecht becomes the interrogation of Galileo (before the Inquisition for having the temerity to suggest the Earth revolved around the sun), which becomes Brecht before the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington, D.C. It also shows that whatever that committee had in store for Brecht, it was nothing compared to what he put his artists through over the years.
IF YOU GO:
Rehearsing Failure Southern Theater 1420 Washington Ave. S., Minneapolis; 612-340-0155 $24 for non-ARTShare tickets Visit theatrenovimost.org for showtimes