What do you get when you combine a late German playwright, a TedTalk, and a Farrago?
Singing in the Dark Times: The Many Trials of Bertolt Brecht.
Singing in the Dark Times is a history-heavy poetry-heavy theater experience that is not for the faint of heart.
The show is a multimedia extravaganza featuring audio recordings of Brecht himself, a haunting trio of Shostakovitch-playing violin, cello, and flute, some actual singing, and projections, on top of the scene acting one would expect from stage production.
Put together by Fermat’s Last Theater Company, this work is is the latest in a series of explorations of the life and work of the German playwright Bertolt Brecht.
The show prominently features Madison/Chicago stage and screen actor, visual artist, and kazoo enthusiast (as well as my long-time personal friend) Isabel Karp in the title role of Bertolt Brecht.
I had the pleasure of seeing the Friday August 10th performance as well as a little back stage view and chat with the performers (which was not really a privilege of connection as each performance is followed up with a talk back).
In this production Karp takes the weight of the play, functioning as in-character narrator and occasional scene actor, detailing the life and times and many trials of Brecht. The role is essentially 50 minutes of non-stop lines - save the intercalary poetry performance from ensemble members Greer Dubois and Maggie Schenk - which she took in stride.
While Karp acted solo, the multi-talented Dubois and Schenk doubled as cello and flute respectively, joined by violin player Diana Wheeler.
The three provided accompanying music as well as sound effects for the performance.
The script, which combines in-character lecture, scenes from Brechts plays, Brecths poetry, and song, was developed by David Simmons & Greer Dubois.
(Extra note added 8/12/18 12:50 p.m.)
This play actually features a fair amount of comedy, especially surrounding a recording of Brecht's personal testimony, in which he is being intentionally witty.
Conversely this is self-critique of the play, I didn't get a lot of the comedy, however the rest of the audience sure was. As I've said in past posts, a lot of the experience depends on the paratext you bring with you to the show, and clearly I don't know enough about unions, HUAC, and WW11.
So it's a win-win situation. Either you get a chuckle out of the little jokes here and there, or you get motivated to go do some research after the show.
To finish off a great performance was the true icing, the talk back.
After the show, audience member could remain to ask questions of the director, actors, musicians, and experts brought in from the university who gave a short talk before the questions began.
From an academic perspective the initial portion of the talk back was exciting, learning more specifics from the mouth of an expert, but what really jived with my aesthetic of 'attempted academic but also buffoonery' was from an observational perspective.
The talk back after the performance I went to slowly devolved into a medium-heat beef session between one of the experts and a few choice audience members, one of whom left midway through the talk back. Initially they asked questions but eventually just started providing their own answers and disagreeing with one another and the expert. Boy did these theater-goers have strong opinions on the history of unions.
Also making an appearance at the talk-back, a woman who was not present for the performance, showing up, sitting in the front row, presenting a two minute plug for a local musician, and attempting to engage one of the experts in a dialogue about it.
It was wild.
The performers also informed me that on two instances, one during a talkback and one person on a local radio show, inquired as to why all of the performers were women (there was no intended rhetorical choice in the casting but it aparently produced a rhetorical effect).
The talk back was quite a treat.
Overall it was a fantastic feat of work, and if you happen to be reading this early in the day, you have about an hour or so to book it down to the Arts and Literature Lab to make the last performance at 2:00 p.m. today, August 12th.
Go forth and support local theater.