Visual Alienation - Christine Crook Channels her Inner Brecht
Rarely does an artist make the transition from mere mortal to enduring adjective, but any student of modernist theater has used the term “Brechtian” at some point in their lives.
Bertolt Brecht was a fiercely political playwright and conceived of an entire style of theater that he believed would best rouse an audience to action. He was dissatisfied with a theater that at best merely entertained, and at worst, lulled the population into complacency with a status quo that he felt intolerable.
Brecht believed that feeling an illusory connection with the characters in the play, becoming emotionally connected and engaged with the story, shuts off the rational, analytic part of the brain and robs it of the opportunity to recognize systemic injustices and their solutions (ideally, for Brecht, Marxism). To fight this, Brecht imagined theatrical devices that would keep the audience disengaged or “alienated”. Rather than sets and costumes that perfectly mimicked the real world environments, no attempt was made to hide the artificial nature of the theater. Often the mechanics of the stage craft were made conspicuous, not unlike exposed ductwork in a chic live-work loft. Performers would break character to announce the name of the song they were about to sing or to announce the end of an act. Lighting would be harsh and the makeup off-putting. The audience would be made uncomfortable and forced to confront the artifice of theatrical conventions, and ideally, the artifice of modern society’s conventions as well.
For West Edge’s production of The Threepenny Opera, costume designer Christine Crook endeavored to realize the original Brechtian nature of the work, particularly in the ensemble costuming. When the ensemble acts as Peachum’s beggars, Ms. Crook worked to show poverty and homelessness in a way that challenges and discomforts the audience without it becoming a joke. “How do we represent homelessness in a way that’s not making fun of someone’s worst day ever? How do we honor the fact that it is a beggar’s opera? How do we keep it true to its roots as poor theater.”
Her solution was to create grotesque masks from a material that is readily available to poor people. “Cardboard and duct tape makes it all ephemeral and cheap. It’s literally garbage. It’s very visibly fake”.
Throughout the piece the ensemble uses a base costume of dingy undergarments, T-shirts, and granny panties with various stains from various fluids. As they play different roles, different costume accents will be used in modular ways, but the underlying undergarments will always be visible. “Performers can be pulled out of the group to become another character, but they’re never 100% in the character. They’re never always a whore, they’re never always a bum.”
Ms. Crook also used costuming to suggest parallels implicit in the characters. “Both Macheath and Mr. Peachum have a pimp-daddy sort of look, since both are pimps to their own gang of whores or beggars. We’re never quite sure who to sympathize with between the two of them. Neither one is the hero.” There are also hints that the more genteel ladies are also cut from the same cloth. “Polly and Lucy have these sheer overgarment dresses that add a revealing transparency. Lucy has a dress that should have a baby-doll, ‘I’m a sweet little girl’ look. But underneath she’s trailer trash with overalls, just like the rest.”
To experience Brechtian alienation for yourself, get your tickets to The Threepenny Opera this August.