WATERTOWN — Playwright, poet, lyricist, and director Bertolt Brecht wrote dramas designed to provoke audiences to action, not reflection, says New Repertory Theatre artistic director Jim Petosa.
“Brecht’s dialogue and his situations have a visceral force,” says Petosa, who is directing “Brecht on Brecht” Feb. 4 through March 5. “The selections included in this theatrical collage connect on a surprisingly emotional level.”
“Brecht on Brecht” consists of a series of songs Brecht wrote with Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler — “Whiskey Bar,” “Mack the Knife,” “Surabaya Johnny” — as well as haunting and often biting scenes from his one-act plays, along with some poetry.
The original piece, compiled by George Tabori, is rarely performed, partly, says Petosa, because it depended on a crude chronology, a linear approach to Brecht’s artistic output that played as too didactic for anyone who was not already familiar with his absurdist approach.
“I think familiarity with Brecht’s work has sadly been lost,” says Petosa. “We tend to apply the adjective ‘Brechtian’ to describe contemporary theater, when in fact Brecht saw theater as an opportunity to stimulate social action.”
“Brechtian” or “epic” theater describes a documentary-style approach to storytelling, in which there is some distance between the actors and the characters they are portraying, and the audience is often directly addressed from the stage. In his work as director of Boston University’s School of Theater, Petosa sees a new energy fueling interest in Brecht’s provocative and often poignant stories and songs.
“When we selected this piece, I thought we would be in a polarized but still progressive democracy,” Petosa says. “But the world is a different place even from the first day we started rehearsing.”
Although all four of the performers — Christine Hamel, Carla Martinez, Jake Murphy, and Brad Daniel Peloquin — are strong singers, Petosa says the actors’ ability to find the humanity in this striking selection of scenes was his priority. “Their voices and their personalities are very different from each other,” he says, “and the goal is for each . . . to portray a different aspect of Brecht as we journey through his mind and experiences.”
Petosa says the absurd theatricality in the pieces never obscures Brecht’s wit and intelligence. Although “Brecht on Brecht” jumps quickly from one scene to the next, Petosa says it’s a “style audiences are familiar with, even as they contrast with quietly powerful emotional moments.”
“His one-act in which a Jewish wife prepares to flee Nazi persecution, even as her husband dismisses her concerns, serves as a call to awareness that times can change,” he says. “Needless to say, we have found the work stimulating and energizing in ways we didn’t expect.”
It’s not this Texan’s first rodeo
A production of “Billy Elliot the Musical” naturally relies on the strength of the young performer in the title role, so Wheelock Family Theatre producing artistic director Linda Chin and director Sue Kosoff didn’t take any chances. Thirteen-year-old Texas native Seth Judice is taking on the role for the third time, after playing the young boy from an English mining town who trades in his boxing gloves for ballet slippers at the Beck Center for the Arts in Lakewood, Ohio, and the Phoenix Theatre in Phoenix.
Although he may be a “ringer,” Judice’s jaw-dropping spins and leaps are worth the price of admission alone. Locals shouldn’t feel slighted, since New London, N.H., resident Shane Boucher plays Billy’s pal Michael, and the duo deliver a tap number that brings down the house. Boucher will take on the title role in several performances in February. The show runs through Feb. 26.
August Wilson winners chosen
More than 550 Boston-area high school students from 13 schools competed in this year’s August Wilson Monologue Competition. On Monday, the Huntington Theatre Company hosted the Boston regional finals, and Laury Teneus of Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers took first place with her performance as Black Mary from “Gem of the Ocean.” Fanta Diakite of Snowden International School at Copley was named first runner-up with her portrayal of Rose from “Fences,” and Medgene Joseph of Codman Academy Charter Public School — performing as Berniece from “The Piano Lesson” — was second runner-up.
The three teens will receive a total of $850 in prize money, and the top two winners will be awarded an all-expense-paid trip to New York City, where they will perform their monologues in the national competition on May 1 at Broadway’s August Wilson Theatre.
The August Wilson Monologue Competition celebrates the writing of the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning playwright. Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company in Atlanta inaugurated the competition in 2007, and this is the seventh year that the Huntington has hosted the regional finals in Boston.
BRECHT ON BRECHT
Presented by New Repertory Theatre. At Mosesian Center for the Arts, Watertown, Feb. 4-March 5. Tickets: $19-$42, 617-923-8487, www.newrep.org
Terry Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.