Activism plays role in student-run production of Bertolt Brecht’s plays

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Sonia Brin/Staff

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Nestled in the cozy living room of Berkeley’s Lothlorien co-op between a brick fireplace and a bar serving wine and homemade vegan cookies, UC Berkeley students took shelter from Thursday night’s rain to attend “Brecht Now.” The student-run show was a compilation of three short plays written by German poet, playwright and theater director Bertolt Brecht.

The Change Theater Collective, a Berkeley student acting club assembled by the show’s director-producer Marie Cartier and assistant director-producer Danielle Puretz, transported its spectators to the post-World War I era, confronting social and political issues that must not be forgotten with the past.

Cartier and Puretz connected two summers ago while participating in a San Francisco Mime Troupe workshop. It was not until this semester, however, that they realized how important it was for them to put together their own show. As Cartier, a theater major, states, they “wanted to provide opportunities for actors, designers and directors who wouldn’t maybe have that opportunity otherwise.”

Once everyone had filed into Lothlorien and found a spot on a floor cushion, couch, folding chair or stood the back, the lights dimmed, signaling the start of the show. UC Berkeley student Jessica Benson took the stage as a maitre d’ and reminded the audience to turn off their cell phones, because “cell phones are a curse that prevent members of our society from experiencing the present.” The audience felt the burden of social consciousness even before the show officially began.

Delivering important social and political messages was undoubtedly the show’s top priority. The messages were clear, but perhaps at the cost of the acting and production quality. The nearly all-female cast fell victim to uncomfortable overacting that, while a stylistic choice, made the already-cramped living room feel suffocating. The students’ dedication to communicating messages of equality, action and justice through theater was highly admirable, however.

The first play, “The Beggar or the Dead Dog” (1919) consists of a dialogue between a beggar (Amy Ackerman) and a newly victorious emperor played by Puretz. The beggar, though an allegory for post-WWI Germany, reveals the timeless struggle to survive changing circumstances, one Cartier notes is ever-present in today’s world, as “the emperor could easily be a tech gentrifier of San Francisco.”

“Dansen” (1939), the second play, serves as an allegory for the violent rise of Nazi Germany in Eastern Europe. A pig farmer, Dansen (Kyo Yohena), watches idly as the Stranger (Alyssa So) takes over a series of surrounding shops. While the characters represent mid-20th century Switzerland and Germany, one can apply the central theme of the importance of taking action and standing up for what is right to any era.

The message of the third play was not as clear-cut. “The Elephant Calf” (1924-26), a fantastical play within a play, critiques the law and the theater through the trial of an elephant calf (Alyssa So) who is accused of murdering his own mother (Ely Orquiza). While a bit ridiculous, the play reveals the commercialization of the arts as well as the justice system’s ability to draw desired conclusions by manipulating lives and twisting the truth. These central themes, like those of the two earlier plays, address eternal social and political issues.

Although the founders of Change Theater Collective will be graduating this spring, Cartier and Puretz made sure to put in place a structure for the club to continue after they leave UC Berkeley. However, Cartier revealed that “more important than specifically [their] group carrying on is putting out the message that if you want a piece of art, you can pull together a bunch of talent, and make it yourself.”