Happy birthday, Bertolt

Theater classes generally describe Marxist German playwright-poet Bertolt Brecht as being politically opposed to entertainment for entertainment's sake. Theater artists should always keep audiences aware that they're watching a play, he instructed us, and should try to remind audiences as much as possible of social injustices that collect like trails of stinking brown in the wake of a show-horse parade. Nowadays, of course, theater admission prices tend to ensure that the oppressors are being entertained onstage by the chronically underemployed, underpaid, uninsured oppressed--namely, actors.

Nevertheless, brow-furrowed leftist didacticism is the worst sort of fate to heap on any principled, progressive artist, least of all Brecht, who is frequently so very funny and deeply compassionate about the fate of his ragged characters. Why would anyone who despises entertainment constantly collaborate with the feverishly romantic, puckish songwriter Kurt Weill, or write a dry black comedy as laugh-out-loud clever as his fearless Mother Courage and Her Children (well, I laughed out loud when I read it).

This is the 100-year anniversary of Bertolt Brecht's birth, and theater companies around the world are staging a harmonic convergence of productions. Their reason: to remind us that the man's imagination, not his dog-eared copy of The Communist Manifesto (which, by the way, celebrates its 150th anniversary this year) provided the cathedral-like infrastructure for his sprawling, multi-character masterpieces about how not having enough money will harden your heart and make you wicked as surely as having too much.

The fact is, Brecht invites us to laugh and feel excited and sad and scared when we watch his plays, but he just doesn't want us to lose the sense that the lives being recreated on stage in front of us are our lives, or at least, the lives of communities inextricably linked with our own. What Brecht despised and distrusted was sentimentality; it distorts our reflection when he holds up the mirror and indulges us with one tasty frosted pastry of cheap emotion after another until we grow bloated and can't leave our theater seats. Brecht didn't want theater to be a refuge, a hiding place, a reason to disconnect from others. Hell, if Brecht were alive today, I'd be surprised if he didn't view Andrew Lloyd Webber and the creators of those cartoon-to-stage Disney musicals as part of some patrician free-market conspiracy along with Rupert Murdoch and the fast-consolidating banking industry. I know I do.

All that means is that if anybody could use a double shot of Brecht, it's Dallas. Thirty-seven-year-old Theatre Three and seven-year-old Kitchen Dog Theater bring our city into the global Brecht bash with productions of, respectively, his most famous musical collaboration and one of his least produced early works. One is edgy, profane spectacle; the other is dense, tense, philosophical comedy with a tragedy chaser. Both are suffused with that Brechtian wit of the downtrodden--the sense that when things aren't going to get much better, there's no excuse not to laugh. This humor isn't the language of the soul, it's the language of the soul's wounds. Brecht's chortles are accompanied by the taste of blood in your mouth.

The Threepenny Opera, the German playwright's 1928 collaboration with Kurt Weill, owes its massive success less to Brecht than to the lyrical tap shoe and melodic virtuosity of Weill. But while you're busy snapping your fingers to "Mack the Knife" or crooning that supreme plebeian overthrow anthem "Pirate Jenny," Brecht the Marxist lurks right behind you, whispering little anecdotes about how the sins of the poor look and feel so very much like the sins of the privileged, and that many of them can be traced to the same system that's placed them on opposite ends of the economic hierarchy.

As you might expect, Theatre Three emphasizes the pageantry side of The Threepenny Opera more than the political, but I don't suspect Brecht would much mind, especially because director Jac Alder has chosen to stage Michael Feingold's very naughty 1989 translation. There probably aren't many other shows where you'll hear the word "fuck" sung in alto, soprano, and bass, not to mention numerous other polite-company no-noes. The profanity feels perfectly appropriate, for there's nothing polite about the company kept by master criminal Macheath (Greg Dulcie), who divides his time between pimping at a Soho brothel and running a gang of killers and thieves. Macheath's courtship of Polly Peachum (Jamie Pringle) represents a kind of underworld class disruption in itself, since she's the daughter of Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum (Doug Jackson), C.E.O. of the London beggars' racket. Rivalry and even snobbery--Peachum may be skimming the top off a panhandling racket, but he's no certified criminal like Macheath--causes a collision between beggars, prostitutes, and thieves on the eve of the coronation of Queen Victoria.

T3's Threepenny Opera holds definite pleasures, but probably even more so for those of us who've never seen the Brecht-Weill story staged live. Alder sweeps his huge cast everywhere and back again throughout his in-the-round space, aided and abetted by Bruce Coleman's reliably wonderful costumes. In the process, several of the supporting performances captivate us like big, shiny gems on a call-girl's hand. Amy Mills as the police chief's daughter and another one of Macheath's spurned bedmates is a wild-haired cockney wonder, perfectly happy to contemplate homicide in the pursuit of her erstwhile lover. Doug Jackson as the beggar boss who orchestrates Macheath's downfall gallops about the stage with expert long-limbed fluster. Crook-Finger Jack (Alberto Ramirez), the most sniveling yet most outspoken of Macheath's thieves, exudes Brechtian wretchedness and resourcefulness with every rattly breath.

All that said, I left the show wanting to see it again...in another production by a different company. This Threepenny Opera seems like little more than a serviceable introduction to Brecht-Weill, and I can name three reasons why: lead performers Greg Dulcie, Jamie Pringle, and Carey Von Driest. Dulcie is a handsome fellow with a strong voice in both speech and song, but he utterly lacks Mack the Knife's dangerous magnetism. Because Macheath is talked about as much as he's actually onstage talking, the actor's presence must be able to loom across long exchanges by other actors. Dulcie seems ornamental, marching from one end of the stage to the other and planting his feet wide apart, superhero-style, to sing us a song. Jamie Pringle as the beloved beggar boss' daughter and Carey Van Driest as Macheath's working-girl ex could exchange their good girl-bad girl costumes, and we'd barely notice the difference. Neither carves a discernable character.

The criticism of Kitchen Dog's production of Bertolt Brecht's In The Jungle of the Cities, which opens their '98-'99 season, is the reverse. There wasn't an uninspired performance in the house on opening night, but all the actors put their hearts and bodies in service to the overwritten 1922 dramatic comedy about a "metaphysical fight" that can get as obtuse as that phrase suggests. Still, ponderous Brecht just means you've been given too many very important things to consider at once by a playwright who revolutionized the world stage, so there are less noble ways to feel confused and overextended. And it's hard to imagine making this tangled material funnier and more emotionally involving than director Tim Johnson and his top-shelf cast do.

In the Jungle of the Cities doesn't have all that Weillian musical inventiveness to leaven the cruelty and the sordidness and the cold reality of one of Brecht's most important themes--that everybody has the potential for evil, it's just the circumstances that let it rise to the surface. "Each man has many possibilities" is the way it's expressed in this tale of a fiercely idealistic librarian named Garga (Michael Escamilla) whose life of poverty in 1912 Chicago is inexplicably invaded by a prosperous but corrupt Chinese lumber dealer named Shlink (a gender-bending Ann Hamilton) and his henchmen. Shlink has recognized a fighter in Garga and proposes to buy both the clothes off Garga's back and his opinion on the best books in the library: in other words, he dares the man to betray himself. All Garga has, it seems, is his rabid anti-materialism and his desire to "be free." His angry confrontation with Shlink's gang sets up a three-year-long contest of wills (really, a desire to see who owns whom) that draws in Garga's parents (Rhonda Bhoutte and Lynn Mathis), his lovelorn sister (Tina Parker), and his alcoholic girlfriend (Laurel Whitsett).

At first, it seems that Shlink's base businessman instincts are proof of his contaminating evil, as he systematically shows that everyone in this play can be bought at some price. But then we come to realize that Garga's ethical purity is really a form of selfishness, hardening into sheer meanness as surely as Moliere's misanthrope does. His family disintegrates into a writhing mess of hard drinking, prostitution, and insanity. Garga goes to jail for a shady lumber deal, but winds up vanquishing Shlink with one letter to a newspaper.

The climax of In the Jungle of the Cities, in which a roving mob inspired by racism seeks out the Chinaman Shlink, would feel more powerful if it didn't take us more than two and a half hours of sometimes abstract debate (even considering the decadent shenanigans that divert us) to arrive there. Although the tai chi-ish battle sequences that frame the action are no doubt inspired by the Brechtian edict to keep things distant and always somewhat artificial, they seem decorative. Still, the many intense moments from the able cast more than compensate for the flab. Since every cog and wheel in this ensemble purrs harmoniously, I won't spotlight particular actors; let's just say that Kitchen Dog has built a most impressive Bretchtian beast, even if the materials they were handed don't all fit.

In the Jungle of the Cities runs through October 11. Call 953-1055. The Threepenny Opera runs through October 10. Call 871-3300.


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