Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Brechtian Imperative

(a slightly shortened version of this appeared in the printed program of the Eugene Lang College production of Judith of ShimodaMay 3-6, 2012)

     Judith of Shimoda---an adaptation by an exiled German of a Finn’s translation of a Japanese play about an encounter with Americans, translated into English-is irreducibly hybrid. Zishan Ugurlu’s production stretches this hybridity further into the performance, giving an extra dimension to the play that at once complicates it and aerates some of its density. And dense the play is. Not only does Brecht, as always, deliberately prevent full emotional entry into the play by his distancing devices, but the story is unobtrusively sly. It is not simply a Japanese Judith, a Judith of Shimoda. The Hebrew Judith stands up for her people as a national heroine, kills her male opposite number rather than placating him, and there is no hint in the Biblical account of anything but acclaim for her.  Okichi’s offense is not only to placate the enemy but to dissolve cultural barriers between "us” and “them;” that when she is reviled, the crowd vilifies her as “the Yankee Okichi” is no accident. Okichi is as much like La Malinche, who betrayed the Aztecs to Cortés, as Judith. Brecht’s tale is a subversive sequel to the Judith story that tells us not only its dark underside but the reality of how heroes can be despised for precisely the same qualities that exalt them.
      By using two Okichis for the two different eras of Okichi’s life, Ugurlu has dramatized the change in Okichi’s confidence and in her treatment by society. As I sat in on the audition and several rehearsals, I watched as Ugurlu elucidates the various talents of the cast, stitched them into the play, and then, at strategic moments, temporarily undid this stitching to let more of the actors’ real-life attributes into the fabric of the play. We are taught in the arts to take the measure of ourselves and then plunge straight into the discourse no more looking back on our ‘real’ selves than, to allude to another Biblical character, was Lot's wife encouraged to look back to the cities on the lain. By urging her actors to periodically replenish their characters with themselves, Ugurlu was interrogating the opposition between affective and performative, ego and scene. One of her periodic aperçus during this process was “Brecht and Stanislavski”, which I first heard as an opposition (Stanislavski the advocate of identification, Brecht of distancing) but later understood as a linkage. Both thinkers, by different means, were rending the distinction between inner and outer.
   Theater people often caution against overacting, and this process was no exception to that. But even more striking was how the actors were never allowed to fall into the prosaic, to make an abstention from histrionics into a pallid ordinariness. The compelling moments of high drama in Judith of Shimoda stand out aghast a baseline that it already catalyzed and quickened. Even in the sinews of the rehearsal process, one saw the Brechtian imperative to assume nothing, to be perennially both self-conscious and daring. Eugene Lang College production

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