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|A CurtainUp Review
There are two MC's inviting New York theater goers to come to a cabaret these days. The MC at the uptown hit musical is eerie and cunning. The MC (Jeremy Black ) in Revising Germany is a less flamboyant, more world weary. The visitors to his cabaret are also more intellectual and serious: Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) the German playwright (David Nackman), the women who were his lovers and colleagues (Helene Weigel/Vicky Wallace, Elisabeth Hauptmann/Madelyn Chapman, Ruth Berlau/Gabrielle Kurlander, Margarete Steffin/Zenobia Shroff) and the playwright Heiner Müller (Roger Grunwald). There are no dancing cabaret girls here, though highly stylized movements prevail throughout as do songs composed by Kurt Weill, with lyrics by Brecht and sung by Cathy Rose Salit in the guise of Lotte Lenya.
So what have we here? A play with music but not a musical. A cast of eleven characters but no real plot. With dialogue focusing on the messes seeded by nationalism (with the individual character the microcosm of national character), memories of agitprop theater also comes to mind. According to the playwright-director's own description Revising Germany is "a montage of performed conversations" " and I suppose montage is as good a word as any to convey that this is not just ninety minutes of talking heads on a stage. The choreographic movements of the actors, the video taped accompaniment to some of the conversations, plus the on-stage presence of musical director Dan Belmont and his keyboard, all contribute towards making this an interesting theatrical experience.
If the picture of Bertolt Brecht that emerges from Mr. Newman's "montage" does not match the more common image of the man widely regarded as one of the world's greatest theater artists, blame it on John Fuegi. It is his controversial 1994 biography of Bertold Brecht and his circle of lovers and collaborators, Brecht and Company : Sex, Politics, and the Making of the Modern Drama (see book store link) that served as the springboard for Revising Germany. Fuegi challenged the widely held views of Brecht's theatrical accomplishments and courage as a Communist sympathizer. Fuegi's Brecht in fact used his sexual charisma to enslave and exploit lovers and colleagues, taking credit for plays written mostly by them.
Playwright Newman, while not a a dedicated Brechtian also isn't particularly anti-Brecht. For him Fuegi's book serves as an opportunity to use Brecht's history as a means towards a dialogue between him and the similarly disenchanted-with-the-Fatherland Müller who followed in his footsteps. In bringing together these two very German playwrights Newman attempts to sift not only through the wreckage Nazism wreaked on Germany, but through the failures wrought by Nationalism everywhere during the 20th century. Germany's failure may loom most monumental but no country, especially crassly successful America, gets out of this unscathed.
The large cast works extremely well as an ensemble, with Zenobia Shroff as the Danish Mararete Steffin and Roger Grunwald as Heiner Müller particularly noteworthy. The staging is also commendable, particularly in view of the minute size of the stage. It's amazing how Dan Belmont and his keyboard manage to fit in without ever seeming to take up much needed space. His excellent playing and selection of incidental music add immensely to the overall. I've already mentioned the stylized movements as the characters group and re-group but one such choreographic scene is particularly striking. With the sound of plane engines and bombs evoking the terror of World War II, the performers manage to combine moving props with a dance macabre. While on the subject of props, having experienced a good deal of second-hand smoke in small theaters, I'd also like to praise this group for using cigarettes as props but without lighting them.
Since I've never been to the Castillo Cultural Center and most likely neither have many readers of this review, I should add that this is not a dingy out-of-the-way walk-up theater but a bustling enterprise for a variety of other activities housed in a cheerful modern loft space. These activities include artistic director-playwright-psychologist Newman's East Side Psychotherapy Institute.
If you come early enough, one of the Center's many volunteers will give you an eye-opening guided tour -- including the prop room, a state-of-the-art graphics center where programs and brochures are designed and telemarketing fund raising room. It's puzzling that with this organization's apparent marketing savvy, they receive so little press coverage (not even listings). The theater itself is tiny but comfortable, a bit like the private screening rooms that are part of many movie companies' offices.
Cabaret-- the uptown cabaret