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Subversive's 'Mother': Brecht goes interactive

Kurt Schneiderman has been stickin' it to the man since he launched his rabble-rousing Subversive Theatre Collective in 2002. And with a interactive production of Bertolt Brecht's "The Mother," which opened Friday night at the Manny Fried Playhouse as part of the Buffalo Infringement Festival, he's inviting you to do the same.

Subversive's production of the play, a highly didactic piece focusing on the plight of oppressed Russian workers, works by virtue of its game-like setup. At various points during the show, audience members act as props (doors, windows, even printing presses) or play the parts of protesters, cops and strike-breakers. All of this has the effect of turning what would otherwise be an eye-rolling Marxist diatribe into an evening that actually approaches fun. And that's no mean accomplishment.

Rebecca Ward (interviewed above) turns in a consistently amusing performance as the titular mother, who morphs from know-nothing peasant into political agitator through the course of the play. She's joined by an energetic cast of familiar faces, from the excellent Lawrence Roswell in a variety of roles to Andrew Kottler, familiar to Subversive audiences from his starring role in January's (ill-fated) production of "1984." Clever incidental music was provided by the avant garde "sound-crafters" Patrick Cane and Gabriel Gutierrez on a variety of rustic instruments, including the theater's sliding garage door apparatus.

The real stars of the show, however, were the audience members, who quickly shed their initial reticence and became more than eager to participate in the action as the play went along. To get the full experience, I played a strike-breaker, an alternately amusing and frightening experience that had a crowd of angry strikers launching fake but surprisingly realistic-looking rocks at me from the other side of the theater as I scurried to hide behind the blocky set pieces. Others were instructed to march around, holding signs with such slogans as "Bolshevik (sic) have more fun," "BP Sux," and "Lenin Rocks."

Although one might question the wisdom of mounting a long piece of interactive physical theater in a sweltering and poorly ventilated space, Schneiderman has always believed that you have to suffer a little bit for your art. But really, a decent air conditioning system might help folks focus a little more intently on Brecht's message.

Theatrical purists might find this approach gimmicky. But I think it fit perfectly into the do-it-yourself Infringement Fest vibe, which to me is one of the most interesting aspects of the festival and what sets it apart from the glut of summertime festival options our city boasts. Never has a Brechtian political screed been so amusing.

--Colin Dabkowski

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