Roundheads and Peakheads

Drama
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Editorial Review

'Roundheads,' Hardly the Peak of Brecht's Oeuvre

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, Feb. 20, 2009

Catalyst Theater -- the all-seats-for-$10 company -- often likes to go where fainter-hearted drama types fear to tread. With this noble philosophy in mind, the troupe has taken on a doozy of a challenge: the rarely performed Bertolt Brecht play "Roundheads and Peakheads."

What's formidable is the finding of a relevant path through the rather musty underbrush of period agitprop. The Brecht piece, written in the 1930s, divides the denizens of a mythical country into two groups: one with rounded heads, the other with pointy ones. The Roundheads -- disadvantaged and aggrieved -- are on the rise, and they seem hellbent on revenge against the Peakheads (also known as the Ziks), despised as a mercenary tribe that soaks the curved-cranium members of the population.

When, for example, the Roundheads sneeringly denounce their countrymen as looking "Zikkish," the play reveals itself as a political parable; the scapegoating seems to bear more than a passing resemblance to the anti-Semitism that found virulent expression in Germany as the Nazis came to power in the '30s.

Giving this allegory some fresh rationale is the job of Catalyst's resident Brecht specialist, Christopher Gallu, who cooked up a vigorous "Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui" for the company 2 1/2 years ago. Out of "Ui," which concerns the reign of a Chicagoland mob boss, Gallu fashioned a taut ensemble piece about the nature of fascism, with a galvanizing central performance by Scot McKenzie.

But in "Roundheads and Peakheads," director Gallu must grapple with what amounts to lesser Brecht. The story lacks both the theatrical bite of a work like "Ui" and a role an actor can sink his teeth into. The result is a meandering evening relieved by moments of directorial invention.

In the Sprenger Theater, one of the larger spaces in the Atlas Performing Arts Center complex on H Street NE, Gallu does employ some nifty techniques, the best involving a clever use of video. While most of the tale plays out in three dimensions on a bi-level set by Michael D'Addario, snippets of the actors in filmed street scenes -- also by D'Addario -- are projected onto a high, bare wall. The device is an intriguing riff on the alienation effect that Brecht championed, by which an audience is encouraged to sit at a conscious emotional remove from what is occurring on the stage.

Brecht's songs for "Roundheads," set to music by Chris Royal, provide other welcome breaks in the action. Gallu augments the music with his own hip-hop prologue, a rap number, "Money Calls to Money," delivered by Andres Talero and Catherine Deadman.

Unfortunately, these livelier moments are neutralized by the confusing, overly intricate plot; a pivotal element, concerning a virginal Roundhead played by the excellent Jennifer Crooks, is loosely based on Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure."

Lovers of Brecht might be gratified at the exposure to a piece that theater companies rarely touch -- although a lot of what transpires on this evening seems to confirm why this standoffishness exists.

Roundheads and Peakheads, by Bertolt Brecht, translated by Tom Kuhn. Directed by Christopher Gallu. Costumes, Yvette Ryan; lighting Brian Allard; sound, Brendon Vierra; choreography, Cyana Cook. With Monalisa Arias, Cesar Guadamuz, Kathleen Gonzales, Dan Istrate, Erica McLaughlin, Grady Weatherford, John Tweel. About 2 1/2 hours.