General 11-10-2003

Performance Review: Kurt and Bert

Kim Surkan reviews “Kurt & Bert: The Last Days of Weimar with Weill and Brecht,” by Prudence Johnson, directed by Carolyn Goelzer, with music direction by Gregory Thiesen. The show ran at the Southern Theater.

Although many people know of Bertolt Brecht, the famous German poet and playwright, far fewer have heard the name Elisabeth Hauptmann, his secretary, mistress, and collaborator on works such as “Threepenny Opera” and “Happy End.” Twin Cities performer and vocalist Prudence Johnson was out to change that last weekend in her three-person show “Kurt & Bert: The Last Days of Weimar with Weill and Brecht,” performed at the Southern Theater.

The musical theater piece was narrated in large part by Johnson in her role as Hauptmann. Her not-so-sympathetic portrayal of Brecht was juxtaposed with the performance of a series of familiar Kurt Weill songs, additional speeches by Weill’s wife Lotte Lenya (Diana Grasselli), and of course by Brecht himself (Ari Hoptman).

“Kurt and Bert” is the latest in a lineup of historically based performing arts shows the Southern has produced this season, including Ragamala’s profile of Billie Holiday and Ballet of the Dolls’ modern dance investigation of the life and works of Tennessee Williams. Each of the three faced the same challenge of balancing the biographical narrative with the musical (or dance) interpretation of the work itself.

In “Kurt and Bert,” this balancing act proves to be no small task for director Carolyn Goelzer; Weill’s music performed live with a six-piece orchestra competes heavily with the storyline for the audience’s attention. Johnson’s conversational delivery of her lines contributed to the expository feel of the spoken elements of the performance.

The quality of the music alone made this a show worth seeing; Weill’s scores are not easy to master, and this cast seemed to sing them effortlessly. But the title itself seemed misplaced; “Kurt and Bert” might be better called “Kurt, Bert, and Bess” or even “Bess and Bert,” given the emphasis on Hauptmann and Brecht’s failure to acknowledge or fairly compensate her contributions to the productions that won him such fame. Weill seemed to be almost an afterthought; a character who never appears onstage, he exists only through the words of others – primarily his wife Lotte.

As a portrait, then, Johnson’s production was unapologetic in its portrayal of Brecht as an egotistical womanizer, a man who perhaps suffers from an excess of charisma and self-confidence. Hoptman played the role to the hilt, strutting about the stage with his cigar in hand as he ordered the dedicated “Bess,” as Brecht called Hauptmann, to supply the scripts he owed his producers.

Johnson’s glimpse of Brecht and the last days of Weimar was taken from a feminist vantage point not often seen in theatrical or music history, and that’s not a bad thing. Even as the audience members left humming Weill’s tunes, thoughts of Brecht and Hauptmann lingered – just the sort of “intellectual endeavor” Brecht would have liked a theater piece about him to be.