German playwright, poet, and theorist Bertolt Brecht believed that when an audience gets too emotionally involved in a play, they lose their ability to think and thus their ability to take action. In plays like Mother Courage and Threepenny Opera, he utilized non-naturalistic techniques intended to constantly remind theatergoers that they were witnessing artifice. These included direct address to the audience and songs that were more like non sequiturs set to music than traditional musical numbers. His influence can be found in the work of many contemporary dramatists, including Suzan-Lori Parks, Young Jean Lee, Caryl Churchill, and Augusto Boal.
One of Brecht’s lesser known works, Roundheads and Pinheads, has been given a new treatment by pioneering choreographer David Gordon. The politics of division provide fertile ground for Gordon’s Uncivil Wars: Moving with Brecht & Eisler, which premiered at Walker Art Center in Minneapolis this past weekend. Surprisingly prescient considering it was written in 1936, the central story explores how governments devise wars to distract from other problems.
Set in Yahoo, a fictional country with “a big deficit and an overproduction of corn” (sound familiar?), the Viceroy and his Vice-Viceroy decide that the source for all their problems are the immigrant, pointy-headed Czichs (“chicks”), as opposed to the native, round-headed Czuchs (“chucks”). The play unfolds in true Brechtian style, with direct audience address and a stripped down set to render the performance transparent. The narrative is interspersed with songs composed by Eisler, whose raucous melodies often work against overtly political lyrics. Gordon has added an extra layer of meta-commentary by casting actors as both Brecht and Eisler, who narrate both the play’s story and the story of how they created the play. They also educate the audience on the artists’ lives and ideologies.
The result is a theatrically rich production that engages on multiple levels. Although the premise itself is quite simple—one person I was with compared it to Dr. Seuss’ The Sneetches—its larger themes ring as true today as when Brecht penned it. And Gordon’s reworking foregrounds this relevance by contextualizing the piece in history and theory. Considering the divisive politics that characterize so much of today’s world, this is necessary theater.
Photo by Paula Court, courtesy of Walker Art Center