Watching Zie Kollektief (Kate Attwell, Gabe Levey, Brenda Meaney, Mitchell Winter) putting on—in both senses of the phrase—one of Bertolt Brecht’s polemical Lehrstücke (“learning plays”) at the Yale Cabaret this week, I couldn’t help thinking: what is the purpose of theater? So, yeah, “BB” (as he’s referred to in the Kollektief’s preamble) was up to his old tricks, this time tricked out as improv theater complete with a recurring dose of amateurish giggles. The play, ostensibly, is a radio opera formerly known as Lindbergh’s Flight before BB rewrote it to write Lindbergh out, due to the latter’s politics. What kept me amused was the way the play tried desperately to make one man’s triumph—flying across the Atlantic Ocean, remember?—the work of “the people.” If that sort of thing doesn’t inspire hilarity in you, well, then this might not be your cup of tea.
What is my cup of tea, or rather coffee, is watching the work of this group of practiced larkers. Levey, here wearing a cowboy suit, is always irrepressibly funny; Meaney, this show made me see, has reserves of comic skill her time at YSD has barely scratched; Attwell’s subversive sense of theater, one assumes, in a driving force behind the show; the real surprise is Winter. His earnest attack of the role of Lindbergh—or “man of no importance,” if you prefer, comrade—is both ironic and invigorating. But where he really got me was in the early going, as the foursome treated us to a little ditty and a comic discursus explaining what we were about to see. His piercing glance into the crowd had the effect of turning us into kids trying not to laugh while a teacher or other authority figure is staring us down.
And that sort of sets the tone of the whole thing. How can you not laugh at this silly, slightly slapstick production, able to mix its contexts as swiftly as you (or the faux Germanic voice on a tape) can say “Spirit of St. Louie.” It’s a play being played for laughs while the actors seem to think it’s being played for real—you almost expect them to get yelled at for not being serious enough, on more than one occasion. One of my favorite bits was a kind of old soft shoe with everyone a little off; another was a fantasized under-the-sea sequence; and still another was when Lindy/MONI (Winter in a school desk perched above a floor fan) hit a fog bank—the rest of the cast in sheets.
You get the idea: it’s theater as any schoolroom of kids stuck inside for recess might manage it, trying to show—ja, Herr Lehrer!—they’ve learned the mighty BB’s lessons while also deconstructing them just for the hell of it, or just to see, indeed, how elastic is the concept of theater. Of course, as is usually the case with not-for-real theater, the tech support magically does what it must to make it work—great help from Lighting (Joey Moro) and Sound (Tyler Kieffer) on that score.
BB had his reasons and his intentions in trying to destroy the division of labor known as performer and audience, but, for the most part, audiences remain content with a spectacle that leaves them alone. The Kollektief never forgets we’re there and rarely lets us forget it. And the four are able to be themselves in the midst of what they're pretending to be.
If Lindy needs to come down to earth, the same treatment won’t hurt BB either. After all, as Brecht said: “To live means to finesse the processes to which one is subjugated.” And if Brechtian theater is one of the processes to which one is subjugated? Everyone for oneself, kollektief-ly.
Lindbergh’s Flight By Bertolt Brecht Translated by John Willett
Contributing Artists: Kate Attwell, Gabe Levey, Brenda Meaney, Mitchell Winter; Costume Designer: Martin Schnellinger; Lighting Designer: Joey Moro; Sound Designer: Tyler Kieffer; Stage Manager: Carolynn Richer
The Yale Cabaret 217 Park Street March 14-16, 2013