Verfremdungseffekt translated from the German is estrangement effect and it is one of the defining principles of Epic Theatre, the stage theory Bertolt Brecht wanted audiences to realize. He wanted them to distance themselves from the production.
Brecht used historical themes without being strictly historical, actors speaking directly to the audience or transposition of text to the third person and unnatural stage lighting all to keep the audience ever mindful that the theatre was not real, since it was not real the issues addressed in the play could be acted upon by the audience. He used the term historification — Brecht felt that if one were to tell a story from a time that is contemporary to an audience, they may not be able to find the critical perspective that he felt was needed. Instead, he used historical material with themes that paralleled the social problems of his day. He hoped that, in viewing these semi-historical themes from a critical view point, the issues of his day would be transparent to the world. That is Brecht’s theory of Epic Theatre and it is that theatrical theory that Charles Marowitz describes and pulls from in Silent Partners, the saga of Brecht and Bentley currently at the the Warehouse main stage.
Charles Marowitz has written a chronicle of the symbiotic relationship between the German playwright Bertold Brecht and Eric Bentley, his American translator and helper. Silent Partners is based on The Brecht Memoir, Eric Bentley’s writings of that relationship. Mr. Marowitz describes the first meeting of these two historical theatre figures and their relationship while Brecht lived in Hollywood and Washington DC and at their final meeting years later. The exploration of Brecht’s ability to sap the talents of his acquaintances and like a magnet draw them into collaborative relationships against their better judgments is the main focus of the play and the central reason the play is able to draw the audience in as well. It is to the plays credit that even though the subject matter is not of a comic nature much of the dialog between Mr. Brecht and Mr. Bentley is. They go back and forth, barb vs. barb almost like an old married couple. It should be noted that while the play focuses on the relationship between Bentley and Brecht there were equally interesting relationships between Brecht and his wife and one of his collection of female collaborators (Ruth Berlau) who are said to have written possibly ninety percent of Brecht’s work as members of his writing collective.
Ian Armstrong shines in his role as Eric Bentley. As the narrator he draws you in to the story with skill, speaking to the audience with as if he was a friend you had known for years. His telling of Bentley’s attempt at joining the fighting in the Second World War is brilliant and he never loses any of that initial energy through the entire play. Barry Dennen’s performance as Brecht was not quite as strong as Mr. Armstrong’s Bentley. Early he seemed to be uncomfortable with the script and it was not until the second act that he used considerable skill to expose Brecht’s true character. In the final scene between Brecht and Bentley Mr. Dennen is nothing less than superb.
While the play’s main focus is the Bentley – Brecht relationship strong performances are everywhere on stage. Caroline Strong (Ruth Berlau) is spectacular in her role as one of the “writing collective” and a figure who was especially obsessed with Brecht. Charlotte Akin as Brecht’s wife (Helene Weigel) quietly attends to her husband’s every need until, in a fit if rage, she forcefully and with great range confronts his alliances with his writing stable. The remainder of the cast performs skillfully especially a very good performance by Michael Miyazaki in a comic but cruel run in with Brecht.
Richard Montgomery’s set design was minimal but effective; various set pieces were carried on and off stage between scenes while Ian Armstrong as Bentley would address the audience under a tight spot. The projected images of Brecht’s testimony in front of Congress was very effective. There were some very pleasing lighting effects by the very talented Marianne Meadows that added significantly to the artistic value of the production. The sound design by David Crandall was very creative, at times even intense, especially during the scene where Ruth Berlau is being treated for her mental breakdown.
This production is a joy to experience, from the excellent acting of Ian Armstrong, Barry Dennen, Charlotte Akin and Caroline Strong to the wonderful lighting and sound design of Ms. Meadows and Mr. Crandall respectively. This world premere is a very significant event in Washington Theatre and one that should be seen and enjoyed by anyone that enjoys theatre that asks questions of the audience. To quote Mr. Brecht “art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.”