The Private Life of the Master Race, a CurtainUp review CurtainUp

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A CurtainUp Review
The Private Life of the Master Race

Older Worker: I guess there are more of us than we thought.
Younger Worker: So what should we write in the pamphlet for the referendum?
Woman: The best thing to do would be to write one simple word: no.
Khris Lewin as Worker, Betty Hudson as Cook and Nicholas Daniele as Secret Police
K. Lewin, B. Hudson and N. Daniele
(Photo: David Gochfeld)

It's the middle of the 1930's: Brecht has hightailed it out of Germany and is now living in Denmark. He has written his first play that deals directly with the Nazis, Furcht und Elend des Dritten Reiches (literally, Fear and Misery of the Third Reich, though it will come to be known in America by more subtle title used here).

The Private Life of the Master Race is a collection of two dozen scenes -- a "montage" -- twenty of which are included in this production. Part of the evolution of Brecht's "epic theater," it has no through characters though the self-standing episodes, which depict slices of life under Nazi rule, are surprisingly realistic. Brecht utilizes the cumulative effect not just to reveal the crumbling fabric of a society but to incite his audience to put a stop to it. (That his work was unlikely to reach its intended audience is another matter.)

It's now 70 years later, and Roust Theatre Company has chosen this as its inaugural production. From its mission statement, it's evident the company seeks to embrace Brecht's theatrical ideas: "Roust is your wake-up call." The challenge here is to find and exploit the contemporary resonance of this situationally-specific piece.

Though it's not hard to see the parallels (especially if one arrives predisposed to angst regarding the state of the nation and the world), as political theater in the Brechtian (and present) sense, Private Life's call to action is oblique. This is not to say that Roust does not take stabs at building the bridge: the production poster sports an American flag with a Swastika superimposed in the star field; the translation by Binyamin Shalom employs 21st Century American vernacular; and the director, James Phillip Gates, has his actors employ a polyglot of American accents. But, while the playbill announces that the play is to be set in the USA (at a time "t.b.c."), the script retains its original settings (underscored by the set design), and the costumes veer between vaguely period and vaguely contemporary. The net result is a mixed metaphor that creates too much distancing (of a sort Brecht did not have in mind) to achieve its aim.

Mr. Gates has assembled an impressive cast of eight, and they do an admirable job of portraying the myriad characters of the various scenes. Each of those scenes opens with a Brecht-style introduction, which is rendered by one or more actors stepping into a rectangular downstage light. Unfortunately, rather than setting the stage for each scene during these introductions, and keeping them simple, the flow comes to a standstill between most of the scenes as various pieces of furniture, props and actors are situated. This adds enormously to the running time, which was a good half hour longer than that advertised and at least that much longer than desirable.

I'd like to think this new theater company has chosen this play as an inspiration for, rather than example of, the work it hopes to produce. With a bit of tinkering, the raw material is there.

The Private Life of the Master Race
by Bertolt Brecht, translated by Binyamin Shalom
Directed by James Phillip Gates
with Kristen Barnett, Tracy Hostmyer, Betty Hudson, David Beck, Nicholas Daniele, Peter Levine, Khris Lewin and Brad Russell
Set Design: Richard Hoover
Costume Design: Heather Klar
Lighting Design: Andy Smith
Sound Design: Susan Smale with Giovanni Spinelli
Original Composition: Giovanni Spinelli
Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes with 1 intermission
A production of Roust Theatre Company Walkerspace, 46 Walker Street (Church/Broadway)
Telephone (212) 868-4444
From 3/30/06 to 4/22/06; opening 4/05/06
WED - SAT @7:30; $15
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 3/31/06 performance
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