Not long before he died, Bertolt Brecht asked a reporter to "write that I was inconvenient and intend to remain so after my death. Even then there are certain possibilities."
Well, he must be laughing to himself these days. As theaters around the world celebrate the centenary of his birth, Brecht is proving to be as troublesome as ever, though in ways he had not imagined.
His heirs are squirming under academic allegations that their patriarch's mistresses may have been the uncredited authors of significant portions of his plays, including the well-known Threepenny Opera. The German government is still trying to find a politically correct way to celebrate this unrepentant Communist who chose to live in East Germany and become that country's main cultural ambassador. (Brecht left the United States in 1948 under investigation by the FBI and the House Committee on Un-American Activities.) And theater audiences everywhere are once again being poked and prodded by fresh doses of Brecht's still provocative works.
"Brecht has been tagged as one of those playwrights who are good for you, like green vegetables and strenuous exercise," says Tim Johnson, director of In the Jungle of Cities, Kitchen Dog Theater's contribution to the Brecht centennial extravaganza. In fact, Brecht's very name tends to conjure up visions of serious and didactic theater, and seeing some of his most successful plays languish in a rigid bed of tradition and orthodoxy does nothing to ease the burden on audiences. But there is a raw, questioning spirit in his early, less known work that surprises, remaining curiously fresh and contemporary in spite of the stuffiness surrounding this icon of European literature.
In the Jungle of Cities is such a work: Set in a mythical Chicago, in a not altogether unfamiliar world of foundering morals, drugs, sex, and violence, the play centers on the love-hate relationship of two men: the younger, idealistic Garga, and Schlink, the embittered older capitalist who loves him. The improbable story, loosely based on Paul Verlaine's affair with the younger poet Arthur Rimbaud, is sustained by the powerful dialogues, which reflect the struggle faced by all who are asked to reconcile their ideals to an unbending reality. The exchanges are nervous, provocative, and moving at times, and can be both shocking and absurdly funny.
The choice of In the Jungle of Cities is "in keeping with Kitchen Dog's commitment to produce works that challenge the moral and social conscience of our audience and ourselves," says company member Meghan Saleebey. So let Kitchen Dog do what it does best, and see for yourself whether Brecht can still entertain, challenge, and confound an audience.
In the Jungle of Cities will be presented by the Kitchen Dog Theater, 3120 McKinney Ave., from September 11 through October 11. Tickets are $8 to $18; Thursday is pay-what-you-can day. Performances Thursday through Saturday begin at 8 p.m., and Sunday matinees are at 2 p.m. For more information, call (214) 953-1055.