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A little niche music…that’s what’s been missing from this fall’s theater season so far. Audiences look to Arena Stage and the Shakespeare Theater to serve up the classics, to Studio and Round House to provide the local equivalent of off-Broadway, and to Woolly Mammoth and Signature to supply strangeness and Sondheim, respectively. All those troupes have opened true to form with crowd-pleasers for their varying subscriber bases.
Which is fine for mainstream theatergoers, but for the folks who yearn for something a little different, the season can’t be counted as really under way until the area’s more offbeat theaters weigh in. This week brings openings for three of them: Scena Theatre, a company that specializes in European works of a particularly challenging nature, is tackling Brecht; Fraudulent Productions, where the stated avant-garde mission is to “flap the unflappable,” is having a go at a Handke; and American Century Theater, which aims to reclaim neglected works from the ’30s to the ’70s, has latched onto one by a fellow named Miller.
Lets’s start with the good news: Brecht rules. And while he was clearly inspired by Rimbaud’s affair with Verlaine in crafting the plot of In the Jungle of the Cities, he can, in a general sense, be said to have written this sado-masochistic diatribe himself. The authorship of much of Brecht’s better-known work is now ascribed to what’s been termed the “Brecht Collective,” a consortium of wives, mistresses, male lovers, and collaborators whose labors he appropriated when it came time for credit and royalties. In The Jungle of the Cities (the Anselm Hollo translation being used at Scena eliminates the first two words of that title) was written when he was a lad of 23, and first produced when he was 25, and hadn’t yet met most of those folks. It belongs to the group of violent, homoerotic plays that first gained him a reputation (if not much success) as the bad boy of German drama between world wars.
Set in a mythical 1912 Chicago that Brecht (who’d never been outside Europe at that point) crafted from bits and pieces of American gangster movies, the play tells the story of a love-hate relationship between two men: Shlink, a wealthy Malay lumber merchant who has so hardened himself in his rise to prosperity that he can no longer feel emotion, and Garga, a poor young idealist who’s brought with him from the prairies little more than the shirt on his back and a yearning for freedom. Both of those possessions he quickly sacrifices when Shlink, hoping a battle will make him feel alive again, pointlessly goads the young idealist into a fight.
“It’s a morning, just like any other,” protests Garga.
“And on this morning, that is not like any other,” replies Shlink, “I declare war on you.”
In Gabriele Jakobi’s impassioned, aggressively paced production, Andrew Price’s wild-eyed Garga loses his shirt first, stripping it off along with the rest of his clothes in an attention-grabbing opening scene that takes place in the theater lobby. Losing the heart he once wore on his sleeve takes a few minutes longer. It vanishes when Shlink (Brian Hemmingsen, in faux-Chinese makeup that I suppose we’ll have to call yellow-face) signs over all his possessions to his rival in a surprising, passive-aggressive thrust that sets off what is to be a wildly improbable struggle to the death.
Figuring prominently in this battle are such Brechtian concerns as the degradation of womenboth Garga’s fiancée (Tricia McCauley) and his sister (Kerry Waters) discover that prostitution is their only sure ticket to freedomand there are jibes at capitalism and racism, too. But the primary struggle between these men is ferociously personal. As depicted at Scena, it’s at once a boxing match and a sado-masochistic love story between a youth who wants to win and an older man who just wants to fight.
And the point? Well, Brecht is on record as saying that one of Garga’s lines”The chaos is all used up….It was the best of times”sums up the play’s meaning, but the author gave the evening’s slinky, acid-tongued ringmaster (Teman Treadway) a more plausible summation. “People are too durable,” says the character, just before walking offstage and shooting himself.
Anarchic, chilly, naive, and scattered, In the Jungle of the Cities is definitely a young man’s play, but its method and language will come as a neat discovery for those whose only exposure to Brecht has been through the mature, visionary works more often produced. Listen to the soliloquy in which Shlink speaks of how a ship’s hold could be filled to bursting with human bodies and they’d still freeze from loneliness, and you’ll recognize the power that was soon to be unleashed on world drama.
Scena’s production isn’t always as resonant as it is striking to look at, but it’s certainly vivid, violent, and sharply acted, especially by its two leads. Designer Lilli Engel’s grey fedoras and greatcoats, and the persuasive boxing ring she’s created in the rough-hewn space at Studio 1019 are all well-utilized by Jakobi’s staging. The director also sends performers up staircases and ladders to a stage balcony, where domestic scenes can be played out in comparative quiet. Lynn Joslin’s hard-edged lighting and the eerie sound mix David Crandall and Bill Hanff have composed from music by the Hula Monsters and sounds of marching and rioting are sure assets as well.
The surest asset that Fraudulent Productions brings to Peter Handke’s almost inscrutable little prank The Ride Across Lake Constance is an offbeat sense of humor. Since 1984, the company has been dedicated, writes artistic director John Spitzer in his program notes, to “skewering today’s most pressing issues while having a good laugh at everyone’s expense.”
The issue being skewered in Ride is the tedious conventionality of daily life. The play takes its title from a story about a man who, having ridden his horse across a frozen lake, discovers that the ice is so thin he should have fallen through. Rather than being relieved at his good fortune, he promptly dies of fright. That incident, however, is far too dramatic even to be brought up by Handke in the play. Instead, the man who co-authored Wings of Desire with Wim Wenders fills Ride with small talk between two blowhards and quasi-existential arguments over irrelevancies. An ashtray falls. A cigar box falls. A head is scratched. When others enter the room, greetings are exchanged and other irrelevancies broached.
It’s all deliberately anti-dramatic, and it pretty much screams for brittle performing of a rarefied sort that’s out of the reach of most of FraudProd’s performers. Rachel Reed spouts her lines in an amusingly uninflected, deadpan fashion, but the playing of the rest of Spitzer’s cast tends toward the amateurish. This is especially true of the two central performers, who do a comedy-team impersonation that might best be characterized as Laurel and Hardly.
In fairness, Spitzer’s devotion to the avant-garde is linked to a wish to expand the theater community’s reach and to include performers (as well as patrons) who mostly find themselves excluded from the theatrical process hereabouts. This philosophy undeniably works. Where once FraudProd’s actors tended to perform only with this scrappy little company, they show up all over town these days. Michael Miyazaki, a FraudProd stalwart, is giving a fine, out-there performance, for instance, in In the Jungle of the Cities.
But if, over the long haul, the FraudProd process is laudable, it’s still a process. The troupe deserves credit in this instance for getting a Handke script up on its feetsomething that’s not likely to happen at many area theaters. But audiences seeking an exploration of the polish and subtlety that make Handke one of the most respected European dramatists of the last half-century will need to look elsewhere.
One of the most respected U.S. playwrights of the last half-century is Arthur Miller, and one of his most respected plays is The Crucible, which makes it curious that American Century Theater (ACT) would give it a second glance. Or a first, for that matter.
Running with the herd has not been this Arlington troupe’s usual method. ACT has spent the last few seasons carving out a provocative niche for itself by making a point of mounting plays that no one else has been willing to give a second glanceplays like Orson Welles’ Moby Dick Rehearsed, which had its finest hour, prior to ACT’s black-box staging, some three decades ago when it went down in flames at its London premiere. (A subsequent Broadway production went largely unnoticed, and the script languished ignominiously thereafter.) A similar fate lay in store for Lady in the Dark, despite a smash Broadway run and an authorial pedigree most musicals would kill for. When resurrected last year by ACT, it had gone unproduced hereabouts since a post-Broadway tour in 1942.
ACT’s productions may have varied widely in artistic quality from splendid (Moby Dick Rehearsed and Twelve Angry Men) to actively awful (A Thousand Clowns), but in every case until now, the shows themselves have been discoveries. It’s easy to forgive awkward moments in a staging with some sort of archival value.
But that’s not a case that can be made for The Crucible. Miller’s 1953 McCarthyism parable, with its literal witch hunts and puritanical hysteria, is so familiar that it seems always to be with ustaught relentlessly in high schools, performed constantly by community theaters, even made into a Hollywood movie last year with Daniel Day Lewis as the hero. To note that the scandal and hysteria that divide Miller’s Salem, Mass., in 1692 springs from an affair between a straying husband and a slatternly intern…er, housekeeper, is not really to discover a new play in such universally recognized material.
And that’s why a fair-to-middling production like the one Donald R. Martin has staged at Gunston Theater II won’t quite do. The director has cast a brunette with full lips and figure as the sexually needy Abigail and found an upright-but-flawed Proctor who seems to have the down-home manner of a Midwestern politician. But except for J.M. McDonough’s menacing inquisitor, whose voice and stentorian manner would wreak havoc on any House subcommittee he cared to chair, there’s no one onstage who makes enough of an impression to warrant another march down this particular Memory Lane. The sets and costumes are adequate, the lighting acceptable, the performances and blocking fine. But the production’s poetry lies purely in the language Miller put on the page, not in the speaking of that language from the stage.
If the play under consideration were Miller’s The Archbishop’s Ceiling, which was written in 1977 but only recently received its first New York production, or perhaps The Ride Down Mount Morgan, his “serious comedy” about bigamy, an unexceptional staging might well be enough. But it’s hard to settle for something less than stellar with a play that not only aims to inspire, but has done so as repeatedly as The Crucible. CP