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The Exception and the Rule

At the Caravan Theatre, Harvard Epworth Methodist Church Fridays and Saturdays at 9

By Kenneth G. Bartels

Security is a fuzzy blanket, or Natural Ice Cream, or Bertoit Brecht. The fuzzy blanket keeps you warm, the Natural Ice Cream keeps you healthy (and fat) and Bert Brecht keeps you happy. For Brecht's world is one where the good guys are really good, and the bad guys are really bad. St. Joan is heroic and noble (and shows those Chicago stockyard bosses); Grusha of The Caucasian Chalk Circle triumphs gloriously over those mean Ironshirt heavies. And those who are neither good nor bad but are in morality's mushy middle are at least nice; Baal of Baal is no angel (or devil), but it's tough not to like him. And we can at least understand why Mother Courage keeps at it. Morality is codif lable in Brecht; each of his characters has an assignable moral value, to be seen in relation to other characters with different assignable moral values. Brecht's bad guys far outnumber the good; the scale is always weighted in the direction of bad so that good really stands out. Brecht is a preacher; he shows us goodness and hopes thereby to change things. Brecht's plays are his sermons.

The Exception and the Rule is as concise and bitter as any of his sermons can be, Karl Langmann, investor-speculator-merchant, sets out across the Jahi desert with a load of unidentified but valuable goods, accompanied by a guide, a coolie, and a riding crop. His competitors are always right behind him; in trying to keep ahead he overworks both his men, eventually fires (unjustly) his guide, and shoots (intentionally) his coolie. Langmann's philosophy, we are told repeatedly, is "sick men die, but strong men fight." Langmann's world is one made for fighters, one where "who has good luck is good, who has bad luck is bad," where trusting people is stupid, where man masters man only through violence. This is the rule; the exception is anything humane, honest, and free. Hence Langmann cannot believe that the coolie offers him his canteen: Langmann thinks that the coolie has a rock and intends to kill him. Society concurs; at Langmann's trial, the Judge decides that "such is the rule: an eye for an eye. Only a fool waits for the exception. A man of sense would not expect something to drink from his enemy." And with a final turn of the screw, overseen by the "God up in heaven, God of things as they are," Brecht ends his sermon.

The Caravan theatre preaches well; the use of flash-back and rhythm punctuate Brecht's main points. The Caravan even does us the dubious favor of placing Brecht's play in contemporary perspective; the performance begins with a "prologue by an actor," setting our own world's good guys against the bad, showing the present relevance of Brecht's rule. (Penn-Central executives get light jail terms for stealing thousands; George Jackson gets killed for stealing seventy dollars). The Caravan performance is only adequate; Aili Singer as Langmann is vicious, and with precise line readings and movement completely dominates the stage. Playing Langmann by a woman is an interesting twist, and with Ms. Singer, it works well. Joe Volpe as the coolie is also good; his character demonstrates the proper fluidity of stupidity. The rest of the cast seems confused and insecure with their parts--they do not seem aware that they are on stage in front of an audience and supposed to be acting. When this part of the cast has the most to say, the performance is tedious, and at times, as during the courtroom scene, embarrassing.

It's good to see the Caravan Theatre doing something besides How to Make a Woman and children's plays. Both Woman and their children's plays are good, but limiting. The Caravan has enough talent to be doing other things. Their Caucasian Chalk Circle of two years ago is an example of the strong work they are capable of. The Exception and the Rule is not up to Chalk Circle's mark, but it is a step in the right direction.

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