Cut! Cut! `Heartfield' needs trim

Review: Theatre Project tale of anti-Hitler artist is well-researched, but the script needs major surgery.

May 01, 2000|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

As a left-wing German artist jolted by Hitler's rise to power, John Heartfield fought back in the best way he knew how -- with his art. To piece together his savagely satirical photo-montages, Heartfield used a cut and combine method that resulted in often jarring juxtapositions of images.

So it's appropriate that scissors are a frequently used stage prop in the play about Heartfield's life running through this weekend at Baltimore's Theatre Project. It's too bad they weren't used to cut the script.

The three-act original production, which has a running time of nearly three hours, is a heartbreaking disappointment. What has gone wrong with a theatrical idea that seems so right?

Heartfield certainly is a ripe subject for dramatic treatment, given the way that art and politics were so closely intertwined in his life. Specifically, he subscribed to communist beliefs similar to those of his friend, the playwright Bertolt Brecht.

So it makes perfect sense that the musical being presented by Towson University's MFA theater program adheres to Brecht's Epic Theater tactics: The show features a politically confrontational script and outsized performances. Actors directly address the audience, speech is intermingled with song, and signs are held up to signal scene changes.

This production certainly has done its homework. Its creators know a lot about Heartfield's life, and Epic Theater staging. If anything, the show is so insistently didactic that it wears its scholarly credentials on Brecht's black leather jacket sleeve.

Kenneth Allan Vega, who wrote the music, book and lyrics, and director Kate Chisholm haven't found a way to fully animate what instead plods along as a dutiful academic accounting of Heartfield's life and times.

Vega and Chisolm seem reluctant to cut anything out. This polemical hit parade contains more than 30 songs (not even counting the many reprises), and seems to last as long as the 20th century. And so much of the play is devoted to the adventures of Heartfield's son that you wonder whose life this is supposed to be about. A script doctor would have to perform major surgery here.

Also working against the show is that it doesn't devote much attention to Heartfield's actual creative process. One of the real pleasures of the 1993 Heartfield retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art was not only seeing so many of his photo-montages, but getting a feel for how the artist cut up existing photographs from various sources, and put the shards together in often startling combinations.

For instance, one of Heartfield's montages includes a photograph of Hitler -- but it's adorned with photographetic snippets of the style of helmets and regalia worn during World War I. To viewers of that era, the montage would convey Heartfield's conviction that the Nazi dictator was leading Germany into another disastrous world war.

The show tries to convey Heartfield's artistic output by projecting slides of his work. It's difficult to judge the effectiveness of this approach, because major technical difficulties on opening night resulted in the slide projector being completely broken for much of the show, and then projecting slides that were badly out of focus. In any event, there is surprisingly little scripted material commenting on Heartfield's creative practice.

Although Vega and Chisholm don't quite get a handle on all this fascinating cultural material, the life of Heartfield (played by Hal Friedman) is competently accounted for, and it's invigorating that the multiple role-playing, eight-member cast capably embodies fellow artists Hannah Hoch and George Grosz; several Heartfield family members; theater director Erwin Piscator; playwright Brecht; movie star Marlene Dietrich; American Senator Joseph McCarthy; and perhaps too many more.

If there's hope for this well-intentioned mess, it's that Vega has a Kurt Weill-like knack for writing songs possessing both political punch and lyricism, and musical director Peter Foley does a nice job of hammering out those tunes on an upright piano.

It's too bad the singing is never more than adequate, and several cast members seem vocally exhausted -- even before World War II breaks out.

`Heartfield'

Where: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Tickets: $14; $8 for students and seniors

Call: 410/752-8558

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