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THEATER REVIEW Fear and Misery in the Third Reich
by Mary Shen Barnidge

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Playwright: Bertolt Brecht

At: Haven Theatre at the Den, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets: $18. Runs through: March 11

After fleeing Germany in 1933, Bertolt Brecht made it his mission to warn us that a political faction therein led by a charismatic upstart named Adolf Hitler was up to no good. This he accomplished in a series of dramatic sketches illustrating the suffering of innocent people under the manipulative coercion of corrupt authorities—a theme explored in his earlier plays, but now attributed to a particular group of oppressors. Following the premiere in 1938 of the anthologized collection thereof, his alarm secured the allegiance of other countries ( the United States among them ) to ultimately bring about the defeat of the Nazis in 1945.

Haven Theatre director Josh Sobel is convinced that we need reminding nowadays of this chapter in our history, reproduced verbatim from Brecht's ripped-from-the-headlines reports and replete with references to the Weimar era, the sturmabteilung squads and geographically accurate place names. The production values likewise evidence faithful adherence to the author's principles of intellectual distance—stark industrialist scenery, grayed color palette, cross-casting by race and gender, minimal identification of participating artists—only to inexplicably introduce a bait-and-switch epilogue involving a shower of leaflets exhorting us to "fight fascism."

No, this doesn't mean the play's action has been abruptly transported to Italy under Mussolini, though theatergoers immersed in Brecht's dramatic universe by this point may be forgiven thinking so. Instead, what we hitherto believed to be a hindsight lesson in popular gullibility has been restored to its original function as a propagandistic call to arms. The term "fascist" having become increasingly indistinct from its source in the intervening decades, however, audiences are left to fill in the names of their own choice hobgoblins, not all of which may concur.

The verbal alacrity exhibited by the Haven ensemble in navigating Eric Bentley's stiffly academic translation within an acoustically-challenged environment ensuring moments of inaudibility in every section of the audience is irrefutably commendable, as are the many creative visual devices designed to soften the emotional impact of brutal crimes. Unfortunately, as a teaching tool in 2018, Brecht's dispatches from 1938, offers us no instructive recourse for active resistance beyond withholding money from the government and saying "no" ( to which might be added "watch your back"—but we knew that already, didn't we? ).

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