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February 23, 2006

Stage Matters

The Accidental Brecht-a-thon


By sheer coincidence, this week the HSU campus will become the Brecht capital of the world. At least I know of nowhere else that is hosting two productions of Bertolt Brecht plays in the same fortnight, with two nights that both plays are staged of Bertholt Brecht

The HSU Department of Theatre, Film and Dance production of Mother Courage and Her Children begins tonight at Gist Hall Theatre, directed by John Heckel. Next Tuesday (Feb. 28), The Caucasian Chalk Circle opens at the Van Duzer, mounted by the Young Actors Guild of the North Coast Preparatory and Performing Arts Academy, directed by Jean Bazemore.

Although it's accidental, this local Brecht-a-thon is not eccentric. The unique ways his plays address searing issues that are suddenly central to this moment is a chief reason that Brecht is being revisited on stages from Los Angeles to New York, where a new adaptation of Mother Courage by playwright Tony Kushner will appear this summer, starring Meryl Streep.

Bertolt Brecht [right] was a central figure in Berlin's vibrant theatre scene in 1928 when he became famous for The Threepenny Opera, with music by Kurt Weill. By the time Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Brecht had escaped to Scandinavia, where he wrote Mother Courage and Her Children. Brecht uses plain language and dark humor to tell this story of a woman trying to eke out an existence selling goods from her cart to armies on the road, while protecting her three grown children from the very war that feeds them.

Commenting on this play, Brecht said: "War is a continuation of business by other means, making the human virtues fatal even to those who exercise them." For director John Heckel, the core question Mother Courage faces is: "How do you remain soulful, how do you retain a sense of nurturance?" in this situation.

Brecht himself directed this play's official premiere in 1949, with his wife, actor/director Helene Weigel, as the first "Brecht girl" to play Mother Courage. HSU actor, director and teacher Bernadette Cheyne plays her here, surrounded by a mostly student cast. For the songs in the play, popular North Coast singer-songwriter (and recent HSU grad) Lila Nelson put Brecht's lyrics to music. She also leads the live band during performance.

While Mother Courage is a kind of tragedy, The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a comedy with a happy ending. Brecht escaped to America in 1941, thanks to the support of a large expatriate German colony in Hollywood (including actor Peter Lorre, who'd worked with Brecht in Berlin) and the sponsorship of Luise Rainer, star of The Good Earth, even though they'd never met.

When they did meet and took a walk on the beach together, Rainer suggested he try a story using the "chalk circle" -- a kind of King Solomon method for deciding a child's true mother. Brecht agreed, and eventually wrote this play while living in Santa Monica. (He returned to Germany after the war.)

Director (and teacher) Jean Bazemore staged it about five years ago, when the Academy was new and only 15 students were involved. This production, which uses only freshmen and sophomores (juniors and seniors did the fall show, Antigone & St. Joan), has a cast of more than 30 actors and musicians, with music composed by students Izzy Samuel and Greg Moore.

Her students respond to this play, Bazemore says, because of its humor and its core message: " ... that there are good people who take risks and make difficult choices in difficult times. They love it. The opportunity to meet characters who make courageous choices is really appealing to them."

Now I need to disclose that writing this column is one of my freelance gigs, and another I started at about the same time is doing publicity for this semester's HSU-produced shows. That's why I don't review those shows here, but it's still pretty awkward, because it's impossible to write about North Coast theatre and ignore HSU. So I can only ask you to decide on how many grains of salt you want to apply to my remarks.

In the nine years I've been here I've seen most of the plays these two directors have done. I also know them, and I wrote two songs for a play by my partner, Margaret Kelso, that John Heckel directed. (So add more salt and let simmer.) As directors, they have in common a strong visual sense, a feeling for theatrical space and the rhythms of performance, and a sure touch with actors. Their shows and choices of plays aren't to everyone's taste. But I know of no better directors on the North Coast than John Heckel and Jean Bazemore.

Schools like HSU and the North Coast Academy are best able to do these plays because they can supply the large casts, live music and other production requirements that further their educational mission. But since Brecht is a unique playwright not often performed, these are particular opportunities for audiences as well.

For many years Brecht's plays have been obscured by theatrical theories (many of them his own) and Cold War politics (due to his Communist sympathies). But it's said that the motto he kept above his writing desk was: "Simpler, with more laughter." This may be the moment his plays can be seen for themselves, without the baggage.

Mother Courage and Her Children Feb. 23-25 and March 1-3 at 8 p.m. in HSU's Gist Hall Theatre. Tickets are $8, $5 non-HSU students and seniors, free to HSU students. For reservations call 826-3928. Find more on the web at

The Caucasian Chalk Circle opens at HSU's Van Duzer Theatre Feb. 28,and runs nightly through March 3 at 8 pm, with matinees March 1 & 3 at 10 a.m. Tickets are $12, $8 students and seniors, available at Solutions and Wildwood Music in Arcata, Fortuna Music Mart in Fortuna and Plaza Design in Eureka, McKinleyville and Arcata, and at the door.


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