November 20, 1997
at City Garage
It's disorienting to see what we may think of as a “Brechtian” style of theatre—that in-your-face, seam-showing, presentational, cynically didactic Verfremdungseffekt about which the German poet/playwright expounded altogether too much—executed as coolly and dispassionately as it is in Frederique Michel's new production of Brecht's Jungle of Cities. Perhaps because similar material is so often given a high-energy, commedia dell'arté-inflected treatment, it's strange to see it taken, and played, so seriously.
The effect of Michel's considered staging is that the extraordinary, pungent music of Brecht's poetry, in Anselm Holo's admirably gritty translation, registers with rare and stunning clarity. It also means, however, that it's rough going—two and a half hours of pointed indirection and abstraction in place of a plot, and several redundant if pleasingly witty scene-change interludes with a bevy of game chorines (Ruthie Grossley, Aura Wright, and Victoria Coulson) and a leering, sing-songy emcee in whiteface (Paradorn Thiel).
The text is a prototypical Brecht fable a la Mahagonny, set in an imagined backlot version of pre-WWI Chicago, in which an inscrutable Asian lumber dealer, Shlink (a mesmerizing Richard Grove), challenges a meek young librarian from the sticks, Garga (a slick Justin Davanzo), to an inexplicable and unmotivated battle of wits involving, natch, bald-faced fraud, both literal and metaphorical whoring, and criss-crossing betrayals and counterattacks. Implicated in the proceedings are a glib pimp (a sporty Carlos Alvarado), a boisterous businessman (Joel Drazner, over-doing the Chicahhgoe accent and seeming ill at ease onstage), Garga's miserable parents (a raving Peter Lucas and a stiff Louise Barlow), his innocent sister (Anna Pond, who makes plainness of looks and speech into striking assets), as well as a wizened floozy and a dumb sailor (Kimberly Murphy and Ted Wycech).
The action, such as it is, plays out on Charles A. Duncombe Jr.'s breathtaking bar set and in front of a canvas scrim. But despite its presentational touches, the production's even tone makes it feel more like kitchen-sink than epic theatre. It is perhaps best appreciated as a finely staged evening of poetry—which, more than his convoluted performance theory, remains Brecht's real contribution to theatrical art, after all.
'Jungle of Cities,' presented by and at City Garage, 1340 1/2 4th St. (alley), Santa Monica. Oct. 31-Dec. 7. (310) 319-9939.