Brecht: Call and Respond

Reviewer's Rating

What do fans of 20th-century German theatre, poetry retreats and Marie Kondo have in common? About as little as you’d expect, I’d guess, save for the fact that they all might find something to enjoy in Brecht: Call and Respond.

The production includes a trio of one-acts connected with The Jewish Wife by the legendary German playwright Bertolt Brecht, known for his principles of epic theatre and audience estrangement. After a staging of The Jewish Wife itself, two following plays riff on these principles along with The Jewish Wife’s themes of othering, escape and marriage in wildly different ways.

None of the work really questions Brecht; playwrights Arlene Hutton and Kristin Idaszak instead choose to accept his conventions and mould them into the modern day.

Though it is necessary as the basis for the response plays that follow, The Jewish Wife presents itself as a slow start to the evening. Susan Lynskey takes the stage as the title character, making cryptic goodbye calls to friends in advance of her imminent “trip”, the indefinite length of which becomes increasingly clear with each phone conversation. She does perfectly nail audience estrangement, holding us at an arm’s length from her innermost thoughts for much of the play. She maintains a steadily breathy, aloof tone of voice that makes clear her disingenuity, though it’s not quite clear about what until near the end. I’ll leave it at this: the play is set in WWII-era Europe. The wife’s one moment of vulnerability exposes itself at the utterance of the words “concentration camp”, and a fairly monotone, elusive character suddenly becomes compelling.

Arlene Hutton’s Sunset Point follows up this grave little glimpse with what appears to be a slightly more jocular scene. Engaged couple Rachel (Lindsay Brill) and Henson (Gerry Bamman) make light of the startling age difference between the two of them, bantering about their respective social media savvy and the idyllic, seemingly liminal writers’ retreat where they met (where no writing actually got done). The relationship to Brecht’s work isn’t clear for half the play, until it’s revealed that Henson bought a home in a neighbourhood in which Rachel, as a Jewish woman, does not feel accepted.

It’s not a concentration camp, but it’s a trap nonetheless that gives the sprightly, snappy Rachel pause. I couldn’t get on board with her and Henson’s relationship (so in that way, the perhaps unintentional Brechtian estrangement cropped up again), but I soon got on board with her as a character deciding whether a lifetime with Henson is worth a lifetime of estrangement from what seems to be everyone else. I won’t reveal the gasp-inducing line that makes her decision, but Brill plays off it with a fascinating subtlety, and small changes in her tone and her eyes send seismic ripples through the theatre. Like Brecht’s Jewish wife, she comes to nestle herself in disingenuity, but her emotional truth — her deep hurt and disillusionment — rings clearly.

And then we arrive at Self Help in the Anthropocene, in which a woman named Joy tidies her apartment in preparation for a party that night. Lucy Laverly plays the character in an endearing way reminiscent of Marie Kondo herself. We sit with her as she speaks aloud her stream-of-consciousness internal monologue about the items she throws away. She’s genuinely fascinated by why we humans accumulate the random stuff we do, yet simultaneously guilty that her mere existence and ownership of such stuff hurts the earth around her – “I love the world and I love living in it, but I don’t know how.”

I tend not to be a fan of shows that so are so forthcoming in trying to make a social statement — in this case, about our impending geological doom. But Laverly reflects on it so innocently and genuinely that I just want to give her a hug and tell her that she needn’t worry; leave the betterment of the planet to the rest of us and carry on. But like Sunset Point, the overall positive tone belies a graveness. Her living room reveals itself as a microcosm of the world, and each item she discards in good faith comes to represent a species dying off until almost nothing is left. And unlike the previous two plays, it seems as though there’s nowhere to escape to. So Brecht and his respondents leave us not with stories about freedom, but entrapment. You’re separated from the characters, and yet it’s difficult not to feel worried for them, with them as their stories pile up on the stage. The theatre will never feel so small and the streets of Manhattan outside the front door will never feel so wide.