AFTER A HISTORIC FIRST U.S. ENGAGEMENT (at UCLA) that will also, somewhat ironically, be its last, the famed Berliner Ensemble is packing it in. The 50-year-old company, established by Bertolt Brecht when he returned to East Berlin rather than testify before HUAC, will disband and reconstitute itself under the direction of Claus Peymann, who's currently the director of the Vienna Burgtheater. The company will retain the Berliner Ensemble name, but will break with tradition and produce playwrights other than Brecht. (The Berliner Ensemble has always maintained strong -- one might say doctrinaire -- ties to tradition. Until now, only the Catholic Church was perceived as more resistant to change.)
The play on view is Arturo Ui,Brecht's political satire about Nazism written specifically for an American audience. Begun while Brecht was living in exile in Finland but completed in L.A., the allegory retells the ascent of Hitler, but sets the story in 1920s Chicago, focusing on a greengrocer protection racket. (Think of a play setting the Balkan conflict in Las Vegas to get some idea of the sheer headiness of Brecht's conceit.)
But will Brecht's 1941 triangulation of fascism, crime and capitalism seem dated? Through an interpreter, Stephan Suschke, co-director of the Berliner Ensemble, says, "Of course parallels are very obvious when we look to the Balkans." (A widely held view through much of Eastern Europe is that in the Balkans, America is simply using a moral imperative as a front to expand its empire.) "In American history, there have been many cases where the U.S. has embraced dictators. Pinochet and Noriega come to mind. We don't have to talk about German history -- it's so obvious."
What's less obvious is the place of the Berliner Ensemble in reunified Germany. Once a beacon of artistic and political freedom in the East, the ensemble has struggled with its identity since the Berlin Wall fell. "Theater in East Berlin had previously had an important function, since there was no press freedom," Suschke says. "It was only in theater where you could actually say things. It's different now, because we can express opinions outside of theater."
When queried about the relevance of a company devoted to producing works exclusively by one playwright -- a Marxist playwright to boot -- Suschke remarks cryptically, "We are living now so much in the present, theater is a way of connecting with the past and with the intellectual energies of the future.
"Arturo Uiis about a charismatic figure who can lead the masses into destruction. We in Germany are [no longer] as inclined to vote for politicians who must then become entertainers," insists Suschke.
Our own propensity to elect entertainers who want to be politicians, however, gives Brecht's theme another twist.
Berliner Ensemble at UCLA, Freud Playhouse, Westwood; Fri.-Sat., July 9-10, 8 p.m.; Sun., July 11, 4 p.m. (310) 825-2101.