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“The Pawnbroker” Delves into Untold Stories of Bertolt Brecht

As much as I love the New York Fringe Festival, I was only able to see one production in this year’s fest. I was spending the rest of August engaging with theatre in a very different–albeit sweeter–way, as I reprised the role of Jenna in Vital Theatre’s production of Peace, Love, and Cupcakes The Musical. The one FringeNYC show I was able to see was directed by my PLC director, Jennifer Curfman, and it made my short foray into this year’s Fringe Festival totally worth it.

pawnbroker

The Pawnbroker: Lies, Lovers, and Bertolt Brecht’s tagline is “the controversial story of Brecht’s legend–and what five women lost to create it.” Actress and playwright Katelin Wilcox portrays all five women, who not only had romantic affiliations with Brecht, but also shaped the plays he wrote–and were forever shaped by him in return.

I’m not going to lie: one-person shows fill me with a sense of trepidation, unless your first name is John and your last name is Leguizamo. I would rather see the drama of a theatrical performance take place because of a conflict created by more than one character on stage. (This is almost a conundrum regarding fringe festivals, as a good portion of their programming includes solo acts.)

Despite my fears, The Pawnbroker exceeds all expectations. Katelin Wilcox transitions seamlessly from woman to woman throughout the piece, using distinctive red accents for each character she inhabits: a flower pin, a knit hat, a pencil, a handkerchief, and silk scarf. Wilcox’s performance is nuanced and fully-lived. With every woman she portrays, she is not just becoming another character: she is taking on their circumstances, experiencing their triumphs and tragedies, and giving voices to their untold stories. While I’ve read and enjoyed many of Brecht’s plays–especially for their complex and intriguing female characters–I had no idea how many women collaborated on his works. While I was grinning at the sly comedy in The Threepenny Opera, I didn’t know that Elisabeth Hauptmann, a German writer, was Brecht’s key collaborator on the book and lyrics. When I empathizing with the plight of Shen Te in The Good Person of Szechwan, I wasn’t aware her story wouldn’t have been the same without the collaboration of Margarete Steffin, a German writer, and Ruth Berlau, a Danish writer, director, and actress. What makes their absence in Brecht’s legacy even more striking in The Pawnbroker is a series of Brecht-style projections that feature quotes from theatre greats (such as Peter Brook and Tony Kushner) praising Brecht for his achievements in the theatre. While Brecht’s achievements should continue to be known, understood and celebrated, The Pawnbroker makes the excellent case that the women who created with him should spend as much time in the spotlight.

Even though FringeNYC has closed its doors for another year, The Pawnbroker returns as part of FringeNYC’s Encore Series. Learn more about its extended run here.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle at Classic Stage Company

Because Dr. Emmett Brown is a communist, of course.

This has been an AH-mazing year for Brecht on the Off-Broadway Stage. Leading the pack was La Mama’s production of The Good Person of Szechwan. I am in no way exaggerating that Good Person was one of the best theatrical experiences I’ve ever had. Catch it when it comes to the Public Theater’s Fall 2013 season if you know what’s best for you.

For Caucasian Chalk Circle to follow up La Mama’s act means it needed to meet public expectations for innovative staging, great musical numbers, diverse talent that showcases Brecht’s knack for combining joyous hilarity with utter sadness, and vibrant direction that mixes fun with social consciousness.

Thankfully, Chalk Circle serves up just such a production. And the thanks doesn’t just go to the show’s poster child (poster-elder?) Christopher Lloyd– I’ll get to Mr. Lloyd and his awesome self in just a minute.

The play masterfully mixes the sentimental and the abstract, comedy and tragedy, potent storytelling and meta-narrative. Throw in a dash of some rather unique musical numbers and imaginative staging– I can barely think of anything this production does wrong.

Now, Chalk Circle doesn’t have the kitschy pizzazz that made Szechwan a success with audiences. But it is also a rather very different kind of story.  Grusha, a palace maid, saves a baby Prince in a turbulent time of Revolution. She raises the child as her own, making many sacrifices along the way to keep the child’s identity a secret. Once the monarchy is restored, however, Grusha is found out and taken to trial. Since Brecht is Brecht, there’s a whole play within a play structure, which the CSC company makes hilarious use of. Grusha, like Shen Te, is a simple yet heartbreaking character that audiences can truly root for. There’s also an interesting motif of motherhood in both plays… was Brecht possibly drawn to motherhood as a contrast to the paternalistic society and alienating economy he worked through? Hm.

The cast plays several parts, all excellently, and there is truly an ensemble quality to the piece. Christopher Lloyd doesn’t so much steal the show as merely astound us with his physical agility, resounding voice, and frank acting. Lloyd actually switches characters mid-play, and the difference between the rickety, low-voiced Singer and his confident, bombastic, vulgar Judge is a credit to his talent (and makes for the best Act I closing line that I have probably ever seen).

So now that I’m a total Brecht nut, I can fully endorse both Chalk Circle AND Szechwan when it makes its way to the Public this fall.

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