School of Drama honors German writer

Credit: Courtesy of Eric Sloss Credit: Courtesy of Eric Sloss

Theater is not always about entertainment. The legendary German writer Bertolt Brecht, known for his provocative plays, operas, and poems, strongly believed in the power of theater to produce social change and did not want his audiences to attend his works for sheer entertainment. The School of Drama production Tough Nut Cabaret is a tremendous blend of well-known and lesser-known poems and songs by this famous writer and social critic. Tough Nut Cabaret, devised and directed by Robyn Archer, will run through April 25 in the intimate Helen Wayne Rauh Studio Theater inside the Purnell Center for the Arts. The production is part of Carnegie Mellon’s Bite of Brecht festival that celebrates the excellence of Brecht and his pivotal works.

Bertolt Brecht lived a life of criticism and exile while he served as a medical orderly in World War I and survived Nazism in World War II. In the 1930s, Brecht’s German citizenship was taken away due to the Nazis’ anxiety over the communist messages in his works. Fleeing to the U.S. in ’47, Brecht was forced to confront Joseph McCarthy, a U.S. Senator, on charges of communism. Released by McCarthy without conviction, Brecht did not feel welcome in America either and decided to return to Europe in 1948 before finally returning to Berlin in 1949. Brecht died in 1956, and assistant dramaturgs and first-year drama majors Mary Margaret Kunze and Alexander Miller noted that, during that time he was “under a banner of controversy which he would have undoubtedly delighted in. His work has been outlawed and slandered and celebrated, much like the man himself.”

Tough Nut Cabaret features Brecht’s lesser-known poetry, which Archer describes as “dry, succinct, packed with twists and turns on the ethical and observational axis; they bristle with the touchstones of his particular take on humanity — that there is good in the bad [and] bad in the good.” The format of this show is challenging and rewarding for the actors, as it often depends on their ability to express the Brecht poems and songs within a span of a few minutes. Only a single actor of a very capable and convincing cast, Tristan Farmer, a senior drama major, delivered his poetic monologues with ease and subtlety. Roberta Burke, a senior drama major who often delivered critical and harsh opinions on love and lust, was a powerful presence on the stage, grabbing the audience’s attention with her strong and forceful entrance. The meaningful acting in this cabaret only clarifies its messages about what it means to be human.

The cabaret does not follow a consistent story, but is, rather, a larger commentary on humanity, its successes, and its flaws. One scene that profoundly refuses to be ignored comes from Brecht’s poem, “The Late Lamented Fame of the Giant City of New York.” In this full ensemble piece, the actors follow the success of New York in the booming ’20s before hitting rock bottom when the stock market crashed in October 1929. In the beginning of the poem, the lights behind the actors in the smoky and compact Rauh Theater increasingly brighten, before dimming and extinguishing after the description of life during and after the Wall Street crash. Brecht utilizes this poem to demonstrate how even large communal life in New York can ultimately fall victim to the same flaws that can be apparent in a single human being.

Brecht was influenced by and aware of his audience. As dramaturg Brianna Allen, a senior creative enterprise management and drama double major, remarked, “In order to make his audience think, [Brecht] used techniques of alienation or ... Verfremdungseffekt ... ‘to make strange.’” Allen goes on to explain that this form allows the audience to recognize a situation because it is realistic while, at the same time, there is something in the scene that seems out of place, “allow[ing] [the audience] to explore and question topics they had not thought about before.” This Brecht technique was made clear in a sequence where actor Will Brill, a senior drama major, acts out the story of a drunkard who lives on city benches until he sees the light of God and decides to mend his ways. Brill effectively expresses the poem with humor and confusion, a clear case of Verfremdungseffekt. The actors do a tremendous job in this challenging cabaret setting, while Crystal Lee, a graduate student in drama, uses fiery and smoky lighting design to set a dramatic scene that lends itself to soul searching. Gerry Dantry, a drama accompanist, does a terrific job on an upright piano, often having to play stylistic Kurt Weill themes. At times, the woodwinds of the band overplayed and made it difficult to understand what a solo singer was enunciating, but the choreography of the ensemble when singing and talking was effective and unified.

Tough Nut Cabaret is a show of human tendencies and hope. As repeated in Brecht’s powerful poem, “Everything Changes”: “You can make a fresh start with your last breath.” Theater may not only be for entertainment, but Brecht, along with Archer’s direction and Carnegie Mellon’s talented actors, manages to artistically entertain while provoking thought and interpretation.