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(front right) Simon Hedger with (back, l to r) Joe Bianco, Amanda De La Guardia and Alys Dickerson. Photo by Emily Schwartz.
By Erin Shea Brady
In a world where “effortless” is a high compliment, please don’t misunderstand me when I say that the greatest joy in experiencing Haven Theater’s production of FEAR AND MISERY OF THE THIRD REICH is to see the tremendous effort that it took to mount this production. Brecht’s famously theatrical anti-Nazi piece is a series of short plays exposing the anti-semitism, poverty and desperation of Germany in the 1930s.
I want to celebrate all that it took for director Josh Sobel and his team to mount this meticulous production of Bertolt Brecht’s miserable series of vignettes, truly and unironically, without an ounce of “A for effort” condescension. From every angle — producing, design, acting, direction, dramaturgy, and more — the sheer amount of work that these spectacular artists put in is impressive, humbling and necessary. It’s a tribute to our art form to see a company so eager to risk and challenge and grow, to see them reach, so unapologetically, for excellence and social change.
The problem is, of Brecht’s twenty-four playlets, only a small handful are affecting. They all serve a purpose in rounding out the devastation of fascism and the Nazi rule, but while Sobel’s production fully embraces Brecht’s trademark theatricality, it misses a strong through-line for the audience to grab hold of, both in text and production. The set design by Yu Shibagaki is, in ways, ingenious and lends itself to some powerful moments, but in scenes that already lack structure, it fails to provide us with enough context to ground us and help us understand where we are. Our experience feels aimless. That small handful of scenes might have made for an hour of excellent, impactful theater, but the 2018 attention span doesn’t allow for a piece nearly three times as long, which at times lacks focus and momentum.
What comes closest to grounding and propelling the audience is the impeccable sound design by Sarah D. Espinoza. From the get-go, she has her finger on the pulse. Espinoza’s bold attack on the play’s opening moments, in a strong collaboration with composer Jeffrey Levin, transforms what would otherwise be a glorified Viewpoints exercise into something that is damn exciting. It’s a fine line to ride. The world of this play has a sound, and that sound is generated not just by music or tech, but by the props, the actors, and their silence.
Particularly in “The Jewish Wife,” the Act One closer, every pour of a drink, every clink of a glass, every footstep transports us. In a fascinating turn, actor Alys Dickerson becomes the world of the play: performative, contemplative, distraught. The audience is suspended in time as Dickerson unfurls her story in what I imagine was a masterful collaboration between actor and director.
Brecht’s series of vignettes makes an important, if belabored, point: fascism is terrifying, complacency is terrifying, but when we unite in pursuit of progress, we will find hope. In the few scenes that really hit the mark, FEAR AND MISERY hammers home what’s at stake.
If we aren’t breaking a sweat, if we aren’t risking failure, if we aren’t giving our whole hearts, we aren’t doing enough. While much of this piece felt gratuitous and overwrought, I would choose it every time over the many productions that, with more resources available to them, continue to play it safe in the name of “effortless.”
FEAR AND MISERY OF THE THIRD REICH runs through March 11 at The Den Theatre. More info at haventheatrechica