Review: Commonwealth Shakespeare Company's Starry Reading of Brecht's Anti-Nazi Play

By: Nov. 15, 2017
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Fear and Misery in the Third Reich, or The Private Life of the Master Race

Written by Bertolt Brecht, Translated by Eric Bentley, Directed by Steven Maler; Assistant Director, Victoria Townsend; Projection Designer, Tyler Prendergast; Rehearsal Assistants, Jennifer Shubitowski and Sarah Vasilevsky

CAST (in alphabetical order): Brooke Adams, Joel Colodner, Johnny Lee Davenport, Seamus Doyle, Nash Hightower, Obehi Janice, Karen MacDonald, Deb Martin, Sarah Mass, Lily Ramras, Tony Shalhoub, Michael Underhill, Brandon Whitehead

Staged reading presented on Monday, November 13, 2017, at Carling-Sorenson Theater on the campus of Babson College, 231 Forest Street, Wellesley, MA, by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company,

Theater in the Rough is a play reading series that celebrates theater in its purest form: great stories and language personified by great theater artists. These "script-in-hand" readings uniquely engage the audience by limiting visual aids such as sets or costumes, instead focusing on the intersection between the play's text, the actors' performance, and the audience's own imagination.

Commonwealth Shakespeare Company Artistic Director Steven Maler welcomed the audience to this one-night only staged reading of Fear and Misery in the Third Reich at the Carling-Sorenson Theater at Babson College with a preview of the 2018 season. Following in the wake of Bertolt Brecht's cautionary anti-Nazi play are such titles as Death and the Maiden, The Scottish Play, and Richard III. By way of explanation, Maler suggests that it is necessary to look at the past and learn from it in order to have a context for understanding the present. One must hope that these dark coming attractions will be as skillfully realized as the dozen and a half Brecht playlets which Maler directed with an accomplished cast of thirteen, headlined by notable stage and screen actors Tony Shalhoub and Brooke Adams.

Written while he was in exile in Denmark and first performed in Paris in 1938, Brecht's interconnected stories show what life was like in German households in the 1930s as the Nazis came to power. The scenes are familiar, especially in light of a number of other plays produced locally this season, and we are not at all surprised by the anxiety and paranoia exhibited by the German citizens, especially those who are Jewish. However, the quality of the performances and the depth of the characterizations - all the more remarkable owing to the very limited rehearsal time they shared - result in some stunning moments. There is humor and there are incidents of overt oppression, but the quiet, simple conversations and knowing glances can be most chilling.

Fear and Misery was presented without an intermission and, although in excess of two hours, moved swiftly from one scene to the next. Deb Martin served as Narrator and read stage directions to orient us to the rapidly-changing locales. The actors moved minimal props and furnishings as needed, and each scene had an appropriate projected black and white image (designer Tyler Prendergast) as a backdrop. Every member of the ensemble played multiple roles and shifted seamlessly among them. Among the highlights: Nash Hightower and Michael Underhill, frightfully good as S.A. men (Nazi Stormtroopers); Brandon Whitehead sweating bullets as a conflicted jurist; Sarah Mass discovering she no longer knows or trusts her S.A. boyfriend; Johnny Lee Davenport as a pastor ineffectively consoling a dying man; Karen MacDonald singing as a grieving mother of a fallen soldier; and Adams as a Jewish wife reconciling herself to having to leave her husband and home. Rounding out the cast with consistently good characterizations were Joel Colodner, Obehi Janice, and youngsters Seamus Doyle and Lily Ramras.

Many of us go to the theater to escape or be entertained, but we also have an expectation that artists will address the issues of the day in some way. Fear and Misery in the Third Reich cannot be called an entertainment if one goes by its definition as amusement or diversion. However, CSC's presentation, with Maler's intelligent staging and the professional talents of the actors, draws our attention, educates, and provokes serious thought. As we experience the dark clouds formed by our national politics and world events, we might heed the play's final message. In the last scene, "Plebiscite," set in a working-class kitchen in Hamburg in 1938, protesters try to produce an anti-war leaflet. They read a letter from a man who has been executed and still believes in the fight against Hitler. His advice: "Best thing would be just one word, NO!"

Photo credit: Evgenia Eliseeva (Commonwealth Shakespeare Company Ensemble)


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