It starts with four women dressing themselves as men, applying facial hair onstage and setting up the stage. It ends with them arguing about the point of the story they just told as they leave. That story is “The Downfall of Egotist J. Fatzer,” a TAPS production directed, translated and adapted from Brecht by Ph.D. student Jessi Piggott, and one of the most engaging productions at Stanford.
The story follows Fatzer and three of his companions — Cook, Büshing and Mellerman, deserters from World War I — as they hide out with dwindling food supplies and wait for a revolution. For these men, their goal is survival; every moment is an opportunity to find ways to get food and drink, to plan for the future. Fatzer leads their many failed expeditions, but his ego gets in the way of securing provisions and protecting his companions. This leads to physical comedy as the deserters hide behind blocks and work to avoid detection from an ensemble of soldiers, shop-owners and various townspeople — all of whom our four actresses also embody.
Piggott excels in so many aspects of this production. Her translation and dramaturgy — splicing together fragmented Brecht scene drafts revolving around Johann Fatzer — create a tight script where every moment onstage is essential and enjoyable. She cast the perfect actors: four women who embody every role they play beautifully… and aren’t afraid to kick ass. This is a strong choice that serves the production well, allowing the cast to make fun of the way hypermasculine men can act, while not sacrificing an ounce of our ability to follow their story. Pigott’s staging is clever and her set minimalist, using chalk on blackboards and blocks to illustrate location changes and light to indicate specific locations like the deserters’ hideout. The sound — fantastically designed by Michael St. Clair — creates a constant atmosphere for the piece, complete with ambient sound, foreboding war noises, and a warped version of jazz standard Tiger Rag.
In between, the transitions are a work of art in and of themselves; the girls run around to Dirt’s “Hiroshima,” a punky and upbeat tune, as they change the location by moving blocks and time by tallying the number of days passed between scenes. Sometimes stage manager and occasional chorus Eric Eich ‘16 steps in to narrate; he calls the show from onstage — it’s oh-so-Brechtian and Eich has so much fun that the audience loves it, too.
Still, it really is the four actors who are the dynamic center of the production. As Fatzer himself, Maggie Medlin ‘15 is the most naturalistic, displaying leadership and determination with ease. Lily Lamboy, a Political Theory Ph.D. student, as Cook, is a hilarious contrast to Fatzer. From her riotously funny facial expressions, as she insists to the guy who just punched Fatzer that she isn’t associated with Fatzer at all, to her outrage when she realizes he values himself over his three companions, she creates distinct and compelling characters. Lillian Bornstein ‘18 excels as both a worried Büsching and the swaggering, hypermasculine soldier with a soft spot that Fatzer exploits to get him to help the gang out. Raquel Orendain Shrestha ‘17 is solid in every one of the multiple roles she undertakes, eliciting much laughter in her over-the-top turn as a local village-woman.
In the end, Fatzer’s ego will ensure his downfall, as we know from the title. Cook, Büsching and Mellerman argue about confronting him, but it comes too late. In the final standoff, the enemy soldiers fire off rounds of artillery that flatten the deserters’ hideout and destroy them all. After, the actors jump up and tell the moral of the play very seriously, as one is wont to do in a Brechtian show. Then they break, arguing with each other. “There’s no way that’s what the story is trying to get across – it’s clearly about this instead!” It’s tongue-in-cheek and hysterical way to end a play that has challenged norms (of form, content, gender, etc.) throughout.
This was one of the productions I’ve enjoyed most at Stanford. It’s about interesting issues intellectually, and it also compels us to make a personal investment in what happens to the characters. It pokes fun at traditional theater practices, Brecht, and masculinity while telling an entertaining and pithy story. Whether this story is a cautionary tale about selfishness, a decrying of the ills of war, a numeric examination about tallying days without meat, or an exploration upon what it means to “shit upon the order of the world,” it certainly succeeds as a work of theater.
Contact Noemi Berkowitz at noemi11 “at” stanford.edu.