Bertolt Brecht escaped pre-Holocaust Germany in 1939 and railed against Nazism in such plays as “The Jewish Wife” and ‘’Fear and Misery Under the Third Reich.” Many theater-goers best know the great man of letters and respected director for his epic drama “Mother Courage and Her Children” and his famed collaboration with Jewish composer Kurt Weill on “The Three-Penny Opera.” Thanks to New Repertory Theatre’s fairly impassioned revival of Hungarian Jewish playwright and adapter George Tabori’s 1961 revue “Brecht on Brecht”-co-produced with Boston Center for American Performance, the German visionary’s powerful insights about the insidiousness of anti-Semitism and fascism and the need to act against them resonate with new timeliness.
Set “now’’ on a simple stage with few props, “Brecht on Brecht” brings together a good cross-section of excerpts from the title literary giant’s essays, poems and plays. New Rep artistic director Jim Petosa has brought together four talented actors- Christine Hamel, Carla Martinez, Jake Murphy and Brad Daniel Peloquin- to play the varied characters in these excerpts and versatile music director Matthew Stern for piano accompaniment. At first entrance, one performer wheels in the other three. The quartet is soon joined by Stern, wearing a tuxedo. Sporting red clown noses, they establish a topical Trump-centered connection with the protest announcement “No Ban! No Well!” Frankly, Brecht’s unflinching writing can resonate even today without direct contemporary references. Still, the vibrant New Rep staging does well delivering the playwright’s activist attitude.
That delivery ranges from plaintive reflection by a deeply concerned mother – here tenderly rendered by Hamel – to a rage-rich marching foursome on the famed “Army Song.” Martinez crisply expresses opposition to a persistent war of classes. She also forcefully advises that the strongest people never give up; they fight all their lives. In that vein, Galileo – portrayed briefly but incisively by Peloquin – advises that “The struggle for knowledge is won by doubt.” Brecht’s embrace of science by way of Galileo obviously has new impact now that a President cavalierly dismisses the reality of climate change. At another moment, he scathingly delivers an anti-Semite’s absurd but dangerous claim that the Jews are to blame for the misfortunes of the people.
While the four actors have good chemistry together and reach smooth ensemble harmonies, there are several standout numbers and excerpts. Peloquin proves rivetingly strong moving from an understated opening to a very menacing finish on the iconic “Three Penny Opera” number “The Ballad of Mack the Knife.” Hamel is very moving detailing tormented Judith’s need to leave Nazi Berlin in a speech from “The Jewish Wife.” Martinez opens ‘’Surabaya Johnny” with a quiet poignancy that rises to an emotional pitch. Murphy brings real pathos to the misfortune of a peace fighter. Stern skillfully moves between subtle playing and impassioned accompaniment.
Petosa skillfully summons performances at once persuasive and engaging. That appeal factor may sometimes detract from the fire of Brecht’s activist approach. Perhaps the answer lies in one of the playwright’s quotations that Petosa includes in the playbill’s “A message from the director”:
“Art is not a mirror held up to reality
But a hammer with which to shape it.”
New Repertory Theatre’s affecting revival elicits rhythmic clapping from some audience members for the concluding ‘’Bilbao Moon” rather than a strong inner need for real action. A more tenacious reading of “Brecht on Brecht” should hammer its absorbing anthology into the compelling, fully shaped repertoire the playwright would call “fantastic beyond belief.”