The Village Voice 11/9/09 – David Gordon Reworks a Brecht Play to Prod at America Political Perils

by Deborah Jowitt

No matter how much dialogue David Gordon casts about in his productions, they’re usually still listed as upcoming attractions under “dance,” and dance critics regularly review them. His latest work, Uncivil Wars: Moving w/Brecht & Eisler, like his brilliant 2004 take on Shakespeare, Dancing Henry V, has a great deal of text, and much of it not by Gordon. But even though almost all the performers in Uncivil Warsare actors, not dancers, that word “moving” in the title is telling.

Gordon, an important figure in postmodern dance since the 1960s, has taken Bertholt Brecht’s little-known 1931 play The Roundheads and the Pointheads, as translated by the Voice’s Michael Feingold folded in allusions to Brecht’s life and ideas, and turned it into a whirling carousel of political ideologies. This uncannily timely scenario about war-mongering, greed, and discrimination is in almost constant motion. Gina Leishman as Brecht’s musical collaborator Hanns Eisler is the only one of the eight principal performers with a single role; she plays piano, organ, and accordion, sings and confers with Brecht (Valda Setterfield). The others slide in and out of two or three roles each, donning wigs or hats or wimples on the run—sometimes stowing these in the pockets of their black coveralls. They arrange and disarrange chairs and tables, wheel ladders and jail-cell grills around, and handle what could be a ballet barre as if it were a swinging door. They march. They stamp their feet and clap their hands in synch. Most of the time, they deliver their lines briskly—especially Setterfield—with a kind of on-rolling rhythm. Words announcing song titles (in German), credits, and newspaper headlines dance onto a couple of video screens or the back wall (credit Dean Moss and Ed Fitzgerald for the media manipulations). During a trial with Setterfield as judge, a projected transcript is rendered in text-message shorthand to comic—and thought-provoking—effect.

Brecht took as a model for The Roundheads and the Pointheads Shakespeare’s dark comedy Measure for Measure (whose plot, as Brecht-Setterfield tells us, can be traced back through a slew of related 16th-century stories and dramas). The tale of a cruel deputy whose schemes are deflected by the other characters by means of a variety of disguises and deceptions became in Brecht’s hands a didactic political satire. Gordon began working on his version of the play in 2003, and the re-election of George W. Bush in 2004 galvanized him into pushing forward with it. Its relevance is striking. The country of Yahoo has a huge deficit and a surplus of corn; the people are restless. The Vice Viceroy (Davis Duffield) slyly suggests that “war makes new markets.” When the Viceroy goes off on a trip, leaving the VV in charge, the local newspaper helps foment antagonism between the original inhabitants of Yahoo (the roundheads, known as Czuchs) and the recent immigrants (the pointheads, known as Czichs). Former friends become enemies; Czichs are hunted down (“Here, czich, czich!” call their pursuers).

Trials figure in Brecht’s play (a horse is stolen, and justice miscarries to an absurd degree). Gordon has inserted a parallel: Eisler and Brecht’s being summoned (separately) to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Brecht would have been labeled an unfriendly witness—an 11th joined to the Hollywood Ten—had he not fled to Europe.

One factor that gives the production its bewitching, almost dizzying fluidity is the multiple casting. The confusion that sometimes ensues as to who’s being whom now adds to the farcical aspect of disguising. Is Michael Rogers of the resonant voice being the Czuch slum landlord now or the wealthy Czich landowner, De Guzman? Wait, he’s wearing a pointy little headpiece; he must be De Guzman. If it weren’t for the Czichish peak under the wimple, it might take us several seconds to realize that Charlotte Cohn is now De Guzman’s sister Isabella, who’s taken refuge in a convent, and not Nana Collas, a roundhead farmer’s daughter turned whore; when pretending to be Isabella, she wears a wimple that sits lower on her head.

Cohn sings wonderfully both characters’ bittersweet songs in the cabaret style that Eisler and Brecht devised, and all the performers—singly and together—are splendid in the meditative or vituperative songs. Duffield is equally fine as both the vicious Vice Viceroy and the bewildered, victimized Farmer Lopez. Norma Fire takes on the roles of his wife and a feisty lawyer and plays both with distinction. It’s entertaining to see Duffield and David Skeist—who’s oafishly naive and greedy as Farmer Callas, the roundhead horse stealer—jumping up and down as two gleeful nuns who need—and get—a reprimand from Mother Superior John Kelly. (Kelly is also terrific as the town’s resigned and practical madam.) Setterfield and Leishman, with their commentary and Leishman’s accompaniment for the songs, hold the piece together and link it to this country’s present ills.

In the end, the actors are joined by the chorus of volunteers from the Montclair community, and all of them, clustered irregularly on chairs, stamp and clap out a long, engrossing, rhythmically complicated sequence. It sends a strong, if oblique message—suggesting that pigeonholing of people by gender or race, or as, say, red-staters and blue-staters, is a divisive oversimplification of our differences and that harmony is within our reach. Provided our moral compass can again find its true north.


Under the direction of the wily postmodernist David Gordon, “The Roundheads and the Pointheads,” Bertolt Brecht’s 1931 Marxist parable about how politicians distract from the conflict between rich and poor by focussing on less important differences, takes on new life. Scenes from the biographies of Brecht and the composer Hanns Eisler are effectively integrated with their songs, and explanations of Brecht’s theatrical theories are but one of the ways those theories are playfully enacted. The ensemble, which includes Valda Setterfield and John Kelly, is so uniformly excellent, so charming, that the overriding effect is not alienation but pleasure.

S.F. Chronicle Datebook 9/10/06 – SCORING BIG

feature article by Sam Hurwitt

She may have moved to New York 10 years ago, but the Bay Area will be hearing a lot from Gina Leishman this week.

Lisa Peterson’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage,” with a new score by Leishman, opens Wednesday at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. That same night, the California Shakespeare Theater production of “As You Like It” that she scored for director Jonathan Moscone starts previews. (It opens Saturday.)

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Leishman originally composed the “Mother Courage” music for a production that ran this summer at the La Jolla Playhouse, which then became Berkeley Rep’s season opener.

That this “Mother Courage” is a Southern California import may also account for the fact that it uses David Hare’s translation rather than the new one by Berkeley Rep Artistic Director Tony Taccone’s frequent collaborator Tony Kushner, which closed last week in a Public Theater production with Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline in New York’s Central Park.

In any case, it’s old home week for Leishman, and not just because the Bay Area was her home from the mid-’80s to the mid-’90s. The British-born composer has a long history with Brecht and Shakespeare — and with Berkeley Rep, Cal Shakes, and directors Peterson and Moscone.

“For me, the wild thing is the fact that it’s come full circle in some ways,” Leishman says, “because when I first moved here, the very first thing I did was a production of ‘The Threepenny Opera’ at the Eureka, which Tony (Taccone) was part of in those days.”

Leishman’s love affair with Brecht goes back further than that. When she was living in London in the ’70s, she and a friend founded a theater company in an old taxi-meter factory near Paddington Station, which they dedicated to musical performances of Brecht’s works.

“Like all good things, it came and went,” she says. “When I came to the States at the end of the ’70s, basically I ran away both from London and the theater and just became a musician.”

An association with the juggling Flying Karamazov Brothers soon led her back to the stage as a musician and actor in Robert Woodruff’s all-juggler 1983 production of Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors” at the Goodman Theater in Chicago and Lincoln Center in New York. Around that time, the Flying K’s were invited to perform their own show on Broadway, where union rules required them to hire musicians whether they would use them or not. They asked Leishman and others to be members of their pit band — which she named the Kamikaze Ground Crew — and they are still together after two decades. The septet just finished an album and will play Nov. 1 at the Great American Music Hall as part of the San Francisco Jazz Festival, the first time the band has performed here since moving to New York with Leishman.

Brecht would also continue to pull her back to the stage. After “Threepenny,” her first of many collaborations with director Peterson was as a musician in La Jolla’s 1994 production of “The Good Person of Setzuan.” In 1998, for a Brecht centenary celebration at New York’s PS 122, Leishman created the Mr. Wau Wa Band, an all-Brecht quintet featuring four Kamikazes and performance artist Rinde Eckert, which also still performs on occasion.

But performing Brecht is one thing. Composing for Brecht is another matter entirely.

“The musical vocabulary of his collaborators, Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler and Paul Dessau, I realize has permeated my musical thinking,” Leishman says. “So when Lisa Peterson calls up and says, ‘Do you want to write a score for “Mother Courage,” ‘ I go, ‘Oh, God, no. How could I do that?’ ”

At first Leishman suggested Dessau’s music for Brecht’s 1949 Berliner Ensemble production instead, but she quickly realized it would be too difficult and would require an orchestra the Rep didn’t have.

“This was going to be Brecht, poor-theater style,” she says. “One musician originally — now I have two because it’s a co-production.”

One of the actors doubled as a drummer, to which Leishman added a pianist-accordionist and a tuba player to help capture both the military air of the anti-war classic and also a circus element in the design.

“It’s kind of scary, because how do you stand in the shadow of those guys?” Leishman says. “I didn’t consciously try to write a Brechtian score. I just wrote what I heard, and I wrote for the singers in the La Jolla production.”

Leishman eventually gave in to the musical associations she had with Brecht.

“I had to let them in on the conversation,” she says. “If I tried to shut them out, it would just be false. So I let them inform me, and consequently I think what I ended up writing is very much in the pocket of the old style. But also it’s me; it’s the way I write and I hear.”

Shakespeare is one playwright for whom Leishman has been making music for a long time, going back to her first Berkeley Rep production, Sharon Ott’s 1986 “Twelfth Night,” and her first Berkeley Shakespeare Festival (now Cal Shakes) collaboration, Richard E.T. White’s particularly Brechtian take on “Measure for Measure” in 1989. When Moscone became artistic director of Cal Shakes, he brought in Leishman (with whom he’d worked in Dallas and Portland, Maine) to work with Peterson again, on 2000’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost.” She has come back to score a show almost every year since, while she and Peterson have continued their collaborations from the Vineyard Theatre in New York to the Guthrie in Minneapolis.

“This is what’s so wild about this summer,” Leishman says, “the crossed threads.”

Because “As You Like It” is about exiles in the forest, Leishman started playing with Eastern European Gypsy themes. She had originally planned on using all strings, but an accordion wound up creeping its way in as well. So now she’s working with an accordionist, a Serbian bass player and a violinist who plays a second violin tuned an octave lower.

“I’m in the midst of writing it right now,” she says. “I can’t really nail it down so that it’s in this box or this box, but the influences are Eastern Europe and,” she pauses, finally adding with a laugh, “me.”