This play may not be for everyone, but for those who enjoy intellectual stimulation and are willing to sit back and contemplate some of the harsh realities and complexities of the human experience, this is a performance you will not soon forget.
Just the title, ‘Fear and Misery in the Third Reich,’ a grim tale by Bertolt Brecht and translated by Eric Bentley, is enough to discourage a sizeable percentage of theater goers looking for the next feel good musical but this is theater at its best, relevant and thought provoking.
Brecht is one of the leading playwrights of the twentieth century who courageously stood up for injustice and openly shed a light on the social and political changes that were transforming his life and the lives of people around him.
Let’s address the “elephant in the room.” It’s a Haven Theatre production that is a two-hour, forty- minute commitment (with ten minute intermission). Before it began I wondered, “Why did they not consider trimming this down a bit?”
Then it occurred to me that it would be like taking a few movements out of a Beethoven symphony. It is as long as it needs to be.
The production is a series of well orchestrated vignettes that explore the impact of Nazism on German society. Each carefully crafted segment represents a different aspect of the social strata and/or one of the essential institutions that comprise our sense of community.
These include the institutions of friendship, love, marriage and family as well as public institutions of mercantile, manufacturing, and government. All of which require “trust” and “honesty” to function properly.
It is important to remain cognizant of the fact that this play was first performed in 1938, a full two years before the U.S. officially entered the war in Europe. The author was describing the events of the day without benefit of hindsight. He was saying, “Wake up people and look at what is happening around you.”
To some, the themes will resonate with the politics of today. That is not to say that life in the U.S. in 2018 is anything like Nazi Germany in 1938 but it may be a cautionary tale of what can happen when the seeds of mistrust are sewn and paranoia blooms.
Brecht was writing in an era before television and the Internet, where newspapers, theater and radio were the communication technology of the day. Even talking pictures were a relatively new phenomenon. The point being that words and the subtlety of language was paramount.
A genius of dialogue, in this play Brecht has a way of writing conversations that sound like a person’s inner thoughts or self-talk being spoken aloud. The result for the audience is a sense that these are your own thoughts. It puts you into the brain of the character and creates a strong feeling of intimacy.
Psychodrama is a therapeutic tool developed around this period intended to help people struggling with inner conflicts to confront their most intimate thoughts by acting them out. No doubt Brecht was inspired by this technique but used it in a most public way.
Director Josh Sobel has done a good job with this group of young actors. The competent Haven Theatre ensemble made their way through this marathon production at a good pace with a few outstanding individual performances.
This is the kind of play that brought about method acting. It requires the actor to “dig deep” and expose his or her own emotions. I am not certain that every cast member has gotten to that level at every moment but this will be a process that will certainly develop over the run and will no doubt have inconsistencies from day to day, but that is the beauty of live theater.
The austere set design by Yu Shibagaki may shock you as you enter the performance space, but it is thought provoking and lends itself well to the production. The lighting (Claire Chrzan) and sound design (Sarah D. Espinoza) as well as the movement direction of dramaturge Abhi Shrestha adds thoughtful artistic depth.
A personal note. I had the good fortune to witness history as an eleven year old actor (Crown Prince Medici) in the Goodman School Theatre production “Life of Galileo” starring blacklisted stage legend Morris Carnovsky, directed by blacklisted actor Howard Di Silva in a play written by a blacklisted playwright Berthold Brecht. Though Brecht wrote this play about the censored astronomer in reaction to the Nazi experience it unfortunately found new relevance in the McCarthy Era illustrating the importance to remain ever vigilant to potential fascism.
DETAILS: ‘Fear and Misery in the Third Reich,’ a Haven Theatre production, runs now through March 11, 2018 at The Den Theatre 1331, N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago. Running time 2 hours, 40 minutes with one intermission. For tickets and other information visit
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