By Bryson David Hoff
Some playwrights are a genre unto themselves.
While their work may share some similarities with their contemporaries, the particular devices and tropes they play with make it hard to call their work by anything other than their name. Shakespeare is one of these writers. Another, less produced, example is Bertolt Brecht, the author of Round Heads and Pointed Heads, currently in production at The Ready, Red Tape Theatre’s new venue in Lincoln Square.
One of the German-born dramatist’s less well-known works, the play is a riff on Measure for Measure tinged by the author’s experiences as a Marxist in Germany during the early rise of the Nazi party. The viceroy of the fictional country of Yahoo (Pete Laughlin) is faced with a problem: there’s a war brewing with a neighboring nation, a peasant revolt sweeping the countryside and the latter is seriously hampering the country’s ability to prepare for the former. At the recommendation of his conniving advisor Missena (Casey Chapman), he abandons his post and leaves the country under the control of the political theorist Iberin (Felix Mayes), who has formulated a solution to the country’s class struggle.
The population of Yahoo is made up of two races of people, one with round heads and the other with pointed heads. Iberin claims that the round-headed Zaks are the native race of Yahoo and thus should be held as of higher worth than the pointed-headed Ziks. The drama arises from the ways in which the new policy of racial persecution impacts the ingrained economic strife of the country, particularly in view of how many wealthy landowners are Ziks and how many tenant farmers are Zaks.
Brecht’s writing is as sharp as ever, and the Tom Kuhn translation does a nice job of preserving the author’s biting social commentary while resisting the urge to update the text to reflect modern times. This restraint is also evident in Max Truax’s staging. It would be very easy in view of the current political climate to try to inject commentary on the state of the United States in 2018 into the play. However Truax is savvy enough to know that Brecht’s work is specifically designed not to need such cheap trappings for the audience to catch the relevance and immediacy of his themes.
The music, written by Nicholas Tonozzi, is likewise artfully written, but with a clear understanding of why Brecht works the way it does. Tonozzi’s work is a studied imitation of the catchy European folk melodies that Brecht’s longtime collaborator Kurt Weill composed for many of his more famous works. His music direction also bares the mark of dramaturgical understanding that, rather than the escapist aesthetic called for by more conventional musicals, the music in Brecht’s brand of theatre is meant to be executed in a less polished, more workmanly manor. The musical performances reflect this perfectly and bear testimony to the fact that, across the board, this is a production that has a deep dramaturgical understanding of not only the text, but also the production philosophy that drove its original creation.
The cast itself is made up of universally strong character actors. Each member manages to be distinctive and charming without stealing focus unduly. Maryam Abdi and Ann Sonneville are particularly charming in their roles as farmgirl-turned-prostitute Nana and procurer Madame Cornamontis, respectively. Both bring a wry sense of humor and a raw, earthly vocal quality to their roles. Their scenes together are some of the comedic highlights of the play and each one’s solo song is a visceral experience.
“Visceral” is, oddly enough, a perfect word to sum up the entire evening. Brecht is best known for his desire to create with his plays the Verfremdungseffekt, a state of mind wherein the audience is intellectually enthralled by the work on stage, but is not bogged down by emotional investment or aesthetic distraction. Everything about Red Tape Theatre’s production shows that not only do the artists understand that philosophy, but also why it is effective. It should also be mentioned that, as a member of the Free Theatre Movement, all tickets are available to the public free of charge. In view of Brecht’s frequent criticism of the evils of capitalism, it seems incredibly appropriate that anyone off the street can (and should) walk into the theatre to see this show.
Red Tape Theatre presents “Round Heads and Pointed Heads” at The Ready, 4546 N Western Avenue, Chicago, through April 21. More information and tickets are available here.