It may not feel like Brecht, exactly, but the Roust Theater Company’s production of “The Private Life of the Master Race” still deserves attention. If nothing else, Binyamin Shalom has produced a new English translation that gives a contemporary idiom to Brecht’s theories on how Germans allowed Hitler’s rise to power.
Shalom gives his dialogue a relaxed, American flow, wisely avoiding imitations of German sentence structure. Instead, political ideas come across with slang and even the occasional “like” or “y’know.” The loose language helps the cast communicate the sense of the lines and leaves us free to ponder ideas rather than syntax.
Many of those ideas are still chilling. This is a purely episodic play, arguing about the rise of Fascism with disconnected scenes instead of following characters on a journey. We therefore see an entire world implicated as the playwright presents multiple variations of people turning their heads, making excuses or trying weakly to resist.
That variation, however, is not present in the production. It has been crafted with the sole intention of proving that modern America resembles 1930s Germany.
Such tunnel vision fundamentally contradicts the text, since Brecht always made space for his audience to disagree with what his characters felt. Even here, where his anti-Nazism is always clear, the scenes invite argument. A poor woman (Betty Hudson) might accept food from Nazi soldiers, but it’s not inevitable that she show her gratitude by ratting out her neighbor. That’s the action she chooses, and we’re meant to question her response even as the government oppresses her.
Director James Philip Gates curtails such inquiry by giving every scene the same forbidding tone. We’re shown the malice of a totalitarian state, not the choices of the people within it. To make sure we get the point, Gates keeps his actors somber, and some scenes try so hard for portent that they slow to a crawl (adding to the bloated, three-hour running time).
In the final moment, the cast even lines up and stares at the audience in judgmental silence. The message is dogmatically clear: Evil is winning, and it’s our fault. But the blatant moralizing is undercut by the fact that we’ve heard it all before. Calling America a neo-Nazi regime is a pastime for activists the world over.
If Gates and his team want to truly explore that notion instead of just jerking knees with it, they need different material. “Private Life” has too many specific references to ’30s Europe to convincingly mirror any time but its own, no matter how many American accents and modern costumes a production might use.
Yet despite its underdeveloped mission, the show does manage some high points. The dark mood enhances scenes like “The Informer,” in which a couple worry that their young son (David Beck) or housekeeper (Kristin Barnett) will report them as traitors. Tautly played by Hudson and Brad Russell, the couple demonstrate how paranoia can turn everyone against everyone else.
Standout work also comes from Barnett, who is better than her castmates at differentiating her collection of scared and angry citizens. She’s not naturalistic — her work has the presentational feel appropriate to a Brecht play — but she does invite us to think different things about her characters by providing each with an individual demeanor.
Along with the language, Barnett is the most engaging element here, offering flashes of surprise as the production itself keeps repeating the same brief message.