Ekkehard Schall, who began his East Coast American tour two weeks ago in New York City, is said to be East Germany's greatest actor. He is also Bertolt Brecht's son-in-law, and he and his wife are the leading figures in Brecht's old company, the Berliner Ensemble. Neither the ensemble nor any of its members has ever performed in America before. But here is Schall, loose-jointed, supple-faced, close-cropped, clothed in a dapper wide-striped suit, looking as if he'd stepped from a drawing by George Grosz. He exudes energy. He leaps on chairs, dances a scimitar dance. And the program he presents is exactly what one would like to see: poems and songs by Brecht himself, performed in German, sometimes to piano accompaniment. (Semiliterate printed translations are available.)
The selection, though, is odd. Brecht's work contains, from a certain point of view, two aspects, which we might call the hammer and the sickle. Americans generally prefer the sickle--the Brechtian quick thrust, the deviousness and ambiguity, the ability to see around corners, the morality that goes in curves rather than straight up and down. The sickle aspect persuades us that Brecht possessed one of the great modern visions. It makes him a master in our eyes. Schall, however, emphasizes the hammer. There are poems and songs of oppression, of resistance, of revolution, of solidarity. Pound! Pound! Pound! You could march to some of them. He recites a speech from "Arturo Ui." It is a fascist rant, meant satirically, of course. "Murder!" he cries. "Extortion! Highway robbery!" He sells "protection" to vegetable dealers. He is an American gangster, but the tiny Hitler mustacle gives him away. Then he turns to Brecht's "The Manifesto." It is a communist rant. No satire here. His face and eyes are expressive, and as the spotlights beam on him, spit shoots from his mouth in a silvery mist. First the spit explodes around his head and then the German words explode in the center of the spit, like fireworks within fireworks. He sits forward on his chair. There's no question this George Grosz figure despises the bourgeoisie. He hates communism's other enemies, too. "He who stands against [communism]," he says, "is not somebody who thinks differently,/But a nonthinker or one who thinks only of himself./ As enemy of humanity/Terrible/Evil/Insensitive." I tell you, it's frightening to see.
Schall's performance at the Harold Clurman Theatre consists of two separate evenings. I was glad to attend evening number one but by evening number two I was a political refugee and quietly kept away.
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|Title Annotation:||Harold Clurman Theatre, New York|
|Article Type:||Theater Review|
|Date:||Mar 16, 1985|
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