Life in Hell 

Eastenders does Bertolt Brecht's worthwhile, if uneven, look at power run amok.

Bertolt Brecht's 1938 assemblage of vignettes of daily life in Nazi Germany, Furcht und Elend des Dritten Reiches, was written in bits and pieces from 1935 to 1938, while the German socialist playwright was exiled in Scandinavia awaiting a US visa. Bits and pieces remain the form of the piece, with as many as 24 scenes, and at least another six that didn't make the final cut. It had its world premiere at UC Berkeley in 1945 in an English translation by Eric Bentley called The Private Life of the Master Race, and now Oakland's Eastenders Repertory Company brings it back to the Bay Area for perhaps the first time since, using a 1983 translation by John Willett.

Eastenders has toured local libraries and community centers with individual scenes for the past month. After playing one weekend at Traveling Jewish Theatre, the full show now moves to Jewish Community Center of the East Bay for four performances Thursday through Sunday.

In this spare production directed by Susan E. Evans and Charles E. Polly, the rotation of scenes is taken literally, with each part bordered by frozen tableaux of the vignettes immediately preceding and following. The entire cast of eleven remains onstage throughout, introducing each scene in turn with a sardonic rhyme indicting that particular aspect of society. Some are extremely short, such as one in a concentration camp in which an SS officer (well-spoken Melvin Payne) has a prisoner whip the ground because the officer's arm is tired from whipping the prisoner. Often these shorter pieces play out like grim jokes.

Fortunately, the longer pieces are also the more resonant. A stormtrooper (a swaggering Benjamin Boucvalt) boasts of how easily he can label citizens enemies of the state even as he goads an out-of-work man (Craig Dickerson, in a nice balance of crafty deference and indignation) to speak his mind. A Jewish wife (a strong, nuanced Carolyn Doyle) practices the conversation she's about to have with her goyish doctor husband as she prepares to flee the country. Two parents (Dickerson and Christine U'Ren) frantically deconstruct anything unpatriotic they might have said in fear that their young son (seventh grader Alexander Senauke) has gone to report them.

Other scenes are confusing at best and at worst fall flat, such as an overlong bit in which a judge (a one-note Jeff Thompson) tries desperately to find out which verdict will best please the powers-that-be. Though sometimes uneven, it's a worthwhile portrait of how easily a society can go astray.


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