Marianne Marcellin is one of a small group of actors in Washington who aspire to produce an alternative to "conventional" theater, a corner of the avant-garde in a city not known for its adventurousness. She is currently inaugurating a new theater space--a word used to indicate the absence of accessories like upholstered chairs--at the WPA on Seventh Street, with her own version of Bertolt Brecht's "The Jewish Wife."
Brecht's short play about a Jewish woman preparing to leave her Aryan husband during the rise of the Nazis has been expanded to include Marcellin's memoirs of her childhood in Paris as the daughter of a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father. Indeed, Brecht has been used more or less as an outline or a focus; his play has been rearranged and amended and the character of the husband entirely removed.
Framed by an intriguing set of aluminum louvred shapes by sculptor Pamela Zulli, Marcellin sings a la Piaf and speaks directly to the audience of her memories of GIs liberating Paris and giving her chewing gum and of being called a "dirty Jew" while a teen-ager in boarding school. She also can remember, although she was age 1 at the time, her mother being arrested for being Jewish and taken to a detention center where the other detainees were shaking and holding their heads in despair.
She segues into the text, interrupting it at one point to tell us she had started a production of the play 10 years ago in Paris but left it unfinished when she immigrated to the United States. This aside underscores the basic weakness of the production. Why did she leave Paris with the play unfinished? Why not tell us this, and other unanswered questions, as long as she is telling us her life story? And really, is the life story of Marianne Marcellin a compelling vehicle for a theatrical experience?
Brecht wrote "The Jewish Wife" as part of a series of short sketches ("Fear and Misery in the Third Reich") intended to create awareness of the awful impact of Nazism on ordinary people. By melding Brecht's character and message to her own life, Marcellin and director J. Garrett Glover tried to bring another dimension to the play.
But the facts of Marcellin's life are not all that illustrative of Brecht's points; the pain and fear of a woman preparing to leave her husband and home to escape an incomprehensible savagery against her religion is not quite parallel to a Frenchwoman's memories of post-war Paris or her disorientation in a new country.
Marcellin is an appealing performer, a tiny, wild-haired Frenchwoman with high, arched eyebrows and a sad face. She possesses both a sensitive perception and a professional discipline. But she is also rather self-indulgent.
THE JEWISH WIFE, ETCETERA, by Bertolt Brecht, with Marianne Marcellin, directed by J. Garrett Glover, set design by Patricia Zulli, at the WPA through March 14.