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Jewish Journal

Two Faces

A gifted actress plays a Jew and a Nazi

by Naomi Pfefferman

June 22, 2000 | 8:00 pm

It is, perhaps, the trickiest quick-change of Hildy Brooks' career.The accomplished actress is the female lead in the Bertolt Brecht plays "The Jewish Wife" and "The Informer," from his collection "Fear and Misery in the Third Reich," now at the Lee Strasberg Creative Center.

In the first play, Brooks portrays a wealthy Jewish woman who makes the difficult decision to leave her Aryan husband and Nazi Germany. In the second, she is a Lutheran hausfrau who parrots the Führer even as she suspects her son may report her and her husband to the police. Between the short plays, Brooks has exactly 2 1/2 minutes to transform herself from Jew to Aryan.Not an easy task for an actress whose paternal grandparents were burned alive in their shtetl synagogue in the Ukraine.

And so Brooks, who worked with Strasberg at the Actors Studio, utilizes a technique that Brecht himself advised his actors to employ. She stashes personal items and artifacts, such as the Nazi Iron Cross, on the set and around the theater to help her assume her divergent roles.On one mirror in her tiny dressing room, there is an early 1930s picture of a beautiful German Jewish woman wearing a white fur coat and riding in a limousine with her pedigreed dog. On the other mirror, there is a photo of a confident-looking Nazi frau, the head of a women's auxiliary of the Hitler Youth.During the brief break between the plays, Brooks glances at the picture of the Nazi woman, quickly changes her wig and costume, races into the bathroom and shuts the door. Hildy Brooks, the Jew, is gone, at least for the duration of the play.

Brooks, who has performed extensively on Broadway and in London, has portrayed a number of Jewish wives, including the Chasidic rebbitzen in "The Chosen" and Jason Alexander's mother in the film "White Palace."

She has been performing since the age of 8, when she walked into the radio station around the corner from her socialist-Jewish home in New Jersey and landed a job on a historical soap opera. Despite the disapproval of her father, a Talmudic scholar, she persevered in her chosen craft and at the age of 20 passed the five-minute audition required by stars and unknowns alike for admission to the Actors Studio in New York. There, she saved Lee Strasberg's notes from her work on "The Jewish Wife," which, Strasberg told her, Brecht had insisted should be performed without sentimentality or pathos.

A couple of years ago, it was Anna Strasberg, Lee's widow, who requested that Brooks perform the play in Los Angeles. The actress politely declined; she was busy on tour with her solo show, and Equity-waiver theater does not pay the bills, after all.

A disturbing incident changed her mind. Brooks was in New York for the summer when her husband telephoned from their home in Hancock Park. He hedged a bit before revealing what had happened in the night. Someone had spray-painted a vicious message on the garage door: "Die Jews. You don't deserve to live. Your time is limited. You'd better get out."

Brooks immediately thought of Brecht's Jewish wife, who learns that all of her money and privilege cannot save her from anti-Semitism. "I thought, 'Brooksy, this is a wake-up call. You're not immune here. You've got to take action,'" she says. When she returned to Los Angeles, she vowed, her next project was going to be "The Jewish Wife."

"The Jewish Wife" and "The Informer" have an open-ended run Fridays-Sundays. For tickets and information, call (323) 650-7777.

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