In November 2005, Barry performed a new work by Charles Marowitz at the Coronet Theater in Hollywood. It was a reading called "Silent Partners" about the German poet/playwright Bertold Brecht and his curious, sometimes troubled relationship with his primary translator, Eric Bentley (the play is based on Bentley's book "The Brecht Memoir). Brecht and Bentley worked closely together in Santa Monica, California during Brecht's exile in the USA in the late '40s.
In the play, Barry read the part of Brecht and was so impressive that he was invited to reprise the role in a theatrical production staged at the Scena Theater in Washington DC and directed by Marowitz.
Here's what the Scena Theater's website had to say about the production:
"The final production of Scena's 2005/06 season will be the World Premiere of Silent Partners, written and directed by distinguished playwright and author Charles Marowitz. Charles Marowitz new play is a brilliant distillation of the first meeting, ensuing collaboration and relationship between German playwright and renowned world master playwright Bertold Brecht and Eric Bentley, his American translator and helper (and one of the last surviving collaborators of Brecht). The play is based on the Eric Bentley memoir The Brecht Memoir and it charts the arrival of one of the greatest theatre geniuses of all time to both Hollywood and Washington DC during wartime. An acerbic and oftentimes scathingly funny portrait of two men as they come on a collision course where, of course, the "highest goal" is to bring the great Brecht to Broadway! This promises to be an exciting theatrical event in the nation's capital. Charles Marowitz is a well know theatre director, playwright and theoretician whose books include Prospero's Books, The Act of Being and numerous adaptations of Shakespeare and Ibsen. His play version of Dracula appeared at the Kennedy Center starring Frank Langella. He is also the former Artistic Director of The Open Space Theatre in London as well as being the co-director with Peter Brook of the legendary first production of Marat/Sade and the Theatre of Cruelty season at RADA in London with Patrick Magee and Glenda Jackson."
May 15th 2006
Some of the early reviews were critical but this was mainly due to the lack of compete run-throughs of the play prior to opening night. After a few slightly rocky performances, the cast came into their own and by the middle of May, were consistently hitting their mark in a very impressive set of performances. The play dramatizes the relationship between the poet/playwright Brecht and his translator, English-born critic Eric Bentley.
Storyline: German playwright Bertolt Brecht fled Germany when the Nazis came to power, eventually settling in America, at least until the development of the post war anti-communism movement. Summoned before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Brecht offers intentionally confusing testimony and flees the United States, establishing a new theater in East Germany. His life is viewed through the eyes of the man who translated much of his work into English and facilitated most of his career opportunities in the United States, Eric Bentley.
Here is a selection of reviews:
- DC Theater Reviews
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 ó 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 illuminated to the world. That is Brechtís theory of Epic Theatre and it is that theatrical theory that Charles Marowitz uses to bring Silent Partners, the saga of Brecht and Bentley to 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 Bentleyís 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 Brechtís 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 Brechtís work as members of his writing collective.
While the playís 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 Brechtís wife (Helene Weigel) quietly attends to her husbandís 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 Montgomeryís 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 Brechtís 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 Crandell 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 expierence, 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. Crandell 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."
- Metro Weekly -
Good art doesn't choose sides,'' claims a cautious Bertolt Brecht in Silent Partners, Charles Marowitz's new elegy to Brecht and his frequent collaborator, Eric Bentley. Indeed, no one in Scena Theatre's world premiere production is able to move far beyond middle ground in what is ultimately a cannibal of a play, devouring its own predator with a narrow investigation of the rare relationship between critic and playwright, politico and pacifist, loved and beloved. Told through the smudgy spectacles of Bentley, the leading translator of Brecht's works who remained Brecht's ''dutiful disciple'' until Brecht's death in 1956, Marowitz's sprawling script melts from factual history -- Bentley and Brecht's first meeting in 1942 to Brecht's testimony at the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947 to his successes with the Berliner Ensemble in the 1950s -- into trite speculation on the nature of the pair's relationship.
Scenes transition in and out, back and forth from reality to emotional memory to form this conclusion: Bentley may or may not have been infatuated with Brecht. Marowitz establishes Bentley as the prime authority on all things Brecht, and while he attempts to sketch the ''cold, inaccessible monster'' Bentley prescribes, the father of Epic Theatre is ultimately little more than a pesky and impertinent seducer, exploiting all of the creative minds who fawn over his dramatic theory. It's a bit like watching a live memoir, grounded in Brechtian history, but as documentary theatre goes, it never once achieves a modicum of emotional resonance, lacking pith in some scenes and focus in others. Perhaps the biggest problem lies in Marowitz's static direction, which leaves his actors antsy and full of nervous energy. Barry Dennen, a veteran stage actor who originated the role of the Emcee in the West End production of Cabaret and Pontius Pilot in Jesus Christ Superstar on Broadway and film, affects his portrayal of Brecht with a strange posture that renders his performance cinematic -- everything is smaller and more contained -- but rarely subtle. Ian Armstrong's Bentley is a spineless, whining puppy to Brecht's bulldog, though Armstrong does sparkle in a few comic bits against Dennen's all-bark-no-bite Brecht.
Marowitz captures the spirit of Brecht's fierce philosophy in a dinnertime debate over Brecht's mechanics of The Caucasian Chalk Circle with his lover and co-author Ruth Berlau (Caroline Strong). Ripe with humor from Charlotte Akin's Helene Weigel (Akin says more in a glance than most actresses communicate in an entire evening), Marowitz crafts an insightful display of the relationship between husband, wife, and lover. And Michael Tolaydo, a fine actor who makes anyone he shares the stage with a better actor, makes a brief appearance as Hanns Eisler, Brecht's devoted confidante. While Marowitz's story is a must-see for Brecht historians, its flimsy chronological plot whips from the magnanimous to the myopic. By the time Bentley finally works up the nerve to confront Brecht in a fantasy scene late in the second act, the notion of dramatic tension is lost on an audience already numb from two hours of tame biography.
- Potomac Stages
Charles Marowitz directs the world premiere of his own play, a dramatization of the relationship between the playwright/director Bertolt Brecht (The Threepenny Opera, Galileo, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Mother Courage and Her Children) and his translator, the noted theater critic Eric Bentley.
Scena assembles a fine cast of Potomac Region regulars such as Ian Armstrong, Michael Tolaydo, John Tweel and Charlotte Akin to play opposite nationally and internationally known Barry Dennen, who creates a fascinating portrayal of Brecht. The play deals more with Brecht's personal side - his concern for his reputation and control over the use of his work - than his contributions to the art of theater. There are references to his famous theories of drama, his concept of alienation and intellectual detachment, but the heart of the piece is his personality, his insecurities and his relationships with those who were close to him during his American years.
As is often the case when a playwright directs the first outing of his own work, the play seems to meander, switching from one style to another and concentrating on first one aspect of the story and then another. Each of these disparate elements have strengths of their own but they never seem to come together into a single play. The project would have benefited from a director who could help the author hone the play to a finer point. The early scenes establish a fairly traditional approach to a biographical play. Then it flirts a while with symbolic impressionism. There's even a time when, set to Wagnerian thunder and under harsh red lighting, Brecht becomes Mephistopheles and Bentley Faust. It then turns to a bio-play's traditional final problem: how to tie up all the loose ends of a life that continues beyond the climax of the story.
Dennen, whose career has included originating the role of Pontius Pilate in Jesus Christ Superstar, gives a fascinating performance as Brecht from beginning to end -- with a brief laps for the Mephistopheles/Faust scene. He shuffles around the stage, puffing on a big cigar (the smoke averse should beware) and commanding scene after scene. His Brecht wins most of the arguments not only by force of the language that Morowitz gives his hero, but by the force of Dennen's own presence. He creates a Brecht who is a highly intelligent man unafraid to use or hide his intelligence, depending on what the moment demands. His interview with Bentley is a delight and his stumbling, rambling testimony before the Congressional committee reveals as much to the audience in the theater about his intentions and strategy as the testimony obscures for the committee.
Ian Armstrong has had a string of strong performances in the Region recently, most notably his British District Officer in Death and the King's Horseman and the title role in Titus Andronicus at the Washington Shakespeare Company. As Bently, he's a fine foil for Dennen and handles the function of a narrator, guiding the audience through this portion of the story of Brecht's life without seeming to be lecturing. Marowitz' script gives him enough meat to make the character interesting in its own right and he makes the most of the opportunities. Not so, the character played by Tolaydo, although the actor does a smooth job with what he's given. Akin, as Brecht's wife, appears wordlessly in many of her early scenes, but when she gets a chance to speak, she shakes things up nicely.
- Curtain Up -
Scena Theatre stirs up laughs and questions with its world premiere of Charles Marowitz' new play Silent Partners.
This quickly paced and intriguingly staged piece is a character study of two men -- Bertolt Brecht and Eric Bentley -- and the unspoken aspects of power and awe which fueled their relationship. Written and directed by Mr. Marowitz, the play looks at the meeting between the 25-year old Bentley and the 44-year old Brecht in 1942. Brecht had come to reside in California in 1941, after leaving Germany in 1933 following the Nazi's rise to power. As Hitler's influence spread across Europe, the writer and his family fled one country after another until they arrived in California. Following his emigration to the U.S., Brecht began to look for an English translator of his poems, books and plays, and settled upon Bentley. It's their resultant rocky friendship that Mr. Marowitz has examined and peeled the layers away from, ultimately revealing a complex web of emotions and mechanizations that were mutually beneficial for both men.
Based on Eric Bentley's Brecht Memoir, as well as on extensive personal interviews with the writer himself, Marowitz has created an entertaining story that is simultaneously funny, perplexing and disturbing. Tossing in small bits of insight into both men, the playwright/director fuels his piece with some wonderful humor. The opening scenes of Acts One and Two which discuss Mr. Bentley's homosexuality with a government official, who may or may not be the same man, are two gems. The dinner scene where Brecht and his lover Ruth Berlau are arguing over aspects of a play, while Brecht's wife Helene Weigel silently eats in a slowly building rage, is another comedic treasure within the production. After revealing to us that Brecht's lovers may have written up to 90% of his most celebrated plays, that he flaunted his affairs in his wife's face, that he chose Bentley because the translator was young, malleable and unthreatening; playwright Marowitz ultimately leaves us asking: "Why did these people coalesce around Brecht?" He provides no answers because the individuals themselves don't seem to understand the spell they have fallen under; though Bentley humorously likens it to Dracula or Lucifer. It seems all are convinced of the writer's greatness, even if he isn't actually certain. What emerges from the drama of the play is a small sequestered culture of celebrity focused on Brecht. The young Bentley eventually becomes, like the women in Brecht's life, someone who derives their identity through being a part of Brecht's entourage: enduring the writer's personal slights, his selfishness, accepting his ego and ultimately giving a part of themselves to his art. Meanwhile, Brecht is a man ready to use anyone who willingly offers themselves up to him and then just as ready to cast the individual aside, ultimately rationalizing his behavior and their contribution to his oeuvre.
As director, Mr. Marowitz knows his material and his subjects. He's highlighted the comedy, while allowing the drama to unfold and bubble under the surface. Richard Montgomery's set is a grey, barn-like space that seems to be a nameless spot in an inner dialogue that Eric Bentley is having with himself. With slight prop and furniture changes, the stage melds from enlistment office to dining room to restaurant to medical lab to Senate hearing to East German theatre. Marianne Meadows' lighting provides some nice effects, especially during the Lucifer sequence, and David Crandall's sound design offers old songs and dramatic score to the production.
Barry Dennen as the cigar smoking, rumpled Brecht is matter-of-fact and laid back. With a twinkle of mischievousness he is at the same time obviously wielding his influence over the younger man to reach his own aims. Due to Mr. Dennen's ability, while you see the less flattering sides of Brecht, you still kind of like the guy. Ian Armstrong's Eric Bentley is winsomely naÔve and very British in manner and reserve. Constantly redirecting his dialogue to the audience to provide insight and commentary (much like his role as a theatre critic) his dry delivery adds to the humor, while he also rises to the occasions when Bentley is forced to reveal his emotional side. As wife Helene, Charlotte Akin creates an angry, brooding woman who is at first overlooked, but who ultimately becomes essential to Brecht's artistic success. Her silent playing of the previously mentioned dinner sequence is a production highlight. Caroline Strong's alcoholic Ruth Berlau -- one of two of Brecht's main mistresses -- is a hard-edged woman who is devoted to Brecht even after he refuses to give her credit or royalties for works she helped him compose. Ms. Strong brings a sadness to the role as Berlau moves from autocratic sidekick to mental patient.
As a writer, Charles Marowitz has taken an unflinching look at both his subjects. Neither escapes the playwright's analysis as he correlates similar aspects of their personalities and shortcomings. Silent Partners is a tug-of-war of wills as one man learns about himself through his friendship with another man whom he believes to have been quite special. But who instead, ultimately, turns out to have been neither hero, role model or villain, just simply a man named Bertolt Brecht.
- Washington Times
That charismatic monster of German theater, Bertolt Brecht, receives an etched-in-acid profile in the Scena Theatre's staging of Charles Marowitz's "Silent Partners," a vastly enjoyable look at the mutually parasitic relationship between the playwright and his translator, Eric Bentley, a critic and academic. Mr. Marowitz says in the playbill that his world premiere work is "freely adapted" from Mr. Bentley's book, "The Brecht Memoir," and his creative license is evident in the play's peppery wit.
Not many people would associate Brecht (played here by Barry Dennen) with the words "laugh riot," but "Silent Partners" revels in delicious humor, especially when reducing Bentley (Ian Armstrong) to a quivering bowl of mashed potatoes every time Brecht manipulates him with a combination of seductive insinuation and Teutonic fastidiousness. One priceless scene has Bentley finally growing some backbone and trying to break ties with Brecht, who senses his disciple is about to leave the fold. He sidles up to Bentley as if embracing a lover and coos into his ear, and the harsh caress of his words take all the starch out of Bentley's body, leaving his arms and legs akimbo like a spent marionette. If the play drives one point home, it is that Mr. Brecht needed his collaborators and sycophants as much as they needed him. "Silent Partners" strongly suggests that Elizabeth Hauptman served as much more than a dramaturg on Mr. Brecht's most famous works, and that Ruth Berlau (the superb Caroline Strong) -- his lover, muse, and political conscience -- was the inspiration for every character from Mother Courage to Polly Peachum. To Mr. Brecht, bed partners and source material were one and the same, the erotic and the intellectual merely two different forms of release. Miss Berlau suffered the most from his callousness -- driven to madness by his abandonment of her once she'd served her purpose. The only person who can handle Mr. Brecht is his hausfrau wife, Helene (Charlotte Akin, bristling with mute resentment), who appears to be made of equally stern stuff. The play also ponders why people allowed Mr. Brecht to use them so. Mr. Bentley freely describes Mr. Brecht as "a smelly, repellent peasant," but still would walk through fire for him.
At first glance, you are not bowled over by the communist theater giant's affected workingman's garb, stinky cigar and emotional coldness. But Mr. Dennen's sly performance gives a hint of Mr. Brecht's effect on people -- his laser-like intellect, his unshakable aesthetic, and even his sense of humor, displayed in his waggishly evasive, jabberwocky responses to the one-track questions he gets while testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Mr. Armstrong is greatly entertaining as Bentley, our narrator and guide to Brecht's hard world. He may be second banana, but his astute observations and pie-eyed double takes are a comic delight.
In his direction
Mr. Marowitz is overly indulgent with his own play, including protracted
and windy scenes that would better serve the whole if drastically edited.
The second act could use some trimming, as we trudge like Mother Courage
herself to the play's inevitable ending. And thank goodness the exacting
Mr. Brecht wasn't there for the long and noisy scene changes, which sounded
like a herd of elephants roaming about off-stage. "Silent Partners" bracingly
explores the relationship between idol and sycophant, which in this case
is mutually exploitative: Mr. Brecht gave his coterie significance, and
they gave him art.
The original Coronet Theater poster (above)
All production photos are courtesy of Ray Gniewek
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