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The New Theatre Workshop's presentation of Bertolt Brecht's one-act play The Exception and the Rule is an extremely interesting exercise in experimental theatre.
If the acting is not unduly distinguished, and certain elements of stagecraft seem misguided, it still is very worthwhile in its attempt to put into action Brecht's conception of non-"theatrical" or "epic" drama. The most distinguished element of this production is the well-conceived blocking which gives movement and flow to this esoteric piece of propaganda for the "classless" society.
Brecht's slightly sophistic purpose is to convey the irony of his bitter and didactic fables by emphasizing the unreality of the stage. This he does by dispensing as much as possible with stage settings, by interjecting straight-forward moral statements directly to the audience. In The Three-Penny Opera he went so far as to have a lettered scroll unrolled at each scene. He was greatly influenced by Oriental drama and from it adopts the idea of using masks, which give the characters a certain archetypal quality. He also abandons the proscenium curtain, thus adopting from the Orient the dramatic conventions that in the West characterized the medieval morality play, but without its naivete.
As is forgivable in a small and experimental production, Director Charles Mee has misused and exaggerated Brecht's refreshing approach to stagecraft to such an extent that it seriously detracts from the play. Indeed, Brecht's ideas about "antitheatricality" must be used dramatically, not as an excuse not to sweep the stage. The creamy decor of the bare Agassiz stage with a vista to the light board tends to distract the eye and the attention, rather than to accent the action. The idea of using masque-like make-up is bright and fresh, but the make-up should be carefully and artfully applied to all the characters. The costumes are merely sloppy: blue-jeans and bare feet like a session at the Actor's Studio.
Perhaps due to inexperience, the acting seems colorless and a little cold. A more stylized and more dramatic approach would improve both the performance's pace and its credibility. There is little sense of dramatic response between one character and another. Eugene Pell as the Merchant is the major offender, with a tendency to over-draw his characterization with scarcely a change in pace or tone of voice. Cyrus Hamlin as the guide and William Schroeder as the coolie are both adequate, but a little dull. Mark Mirsky as the judge is more communicative, but a little out of touch with the serious spirit of the play.
The play, written in 1930, first produced in 1950, and translated into English by Eric Bentley in 1954, demands an operatic score such as Weill did for Brecht's The Three-Penny Opera and The Ja-Sager. Ned Stuart's brief original music for opening and closing is a step in the right direction, but references in the script to speeches as "songs" should have been deleted.
A musical score, together with the other improvements suggested for cleaning up the stage-craft and acting would have improved the performance no end.
Regardless of these faults, first of which is a sloppy and unwashed look, it remains that The Exception and the Rule is the first student production in Cambridge this season which has broken away from the tried and the sure. It is to be hoped that Director Mee and the Workshop will continue their endeavors in this direction.
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