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The Scum Always Rises

Photo by Maia RosenfeldBetween scrambling to America from Nazi Germany via the Soviet Union and Switzerland and being dragged before the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington, D.C., poet-playwright Bertolt Brecht spent a little time in Southern California. He lived briefly in Hollywood, on Argyle Avenue just north of Franklin, and also in the city of Santa Monica, on both 25th and 26th streets, paying between $40 and $50 a month in rent. That was in 1947, the same year he worked with Charles Laughton on a translation of his The Life of Galileo, which received its world premiere, starring Laughton, at the then newly refurbished Coronet Theater on La Cienega Boulevard. (The theater is still there.) Like most German-émigré scribes of that time, Brecht didn’t much care for sunny California. Naturally, being near Hollywood, they all wanted to write screenplays, but our movie moguls of the time didn’t take German Sturm und Drang too seriously, nor pedantic communists for that matter. Brecht complained about the intellectual isolation of the place, while the FBI spied on every visitor to his home and listened in on every conversation of every meeting he engaged in. (And you thought the Patriot Act was something new.) After double-talking HUAC into dithering confusion, Brecht slipped away back home to Germany, by which time the Nazis had been de-fanged. Almost 60 years later, there’s a resurgence of Brecht plays in local theater like none in recent memory — five productions so far this year: Mother Courage (Sons of Beckett Theater Company), Baal (Yale Cabaret), Happy End (Pacific Resident Theater), The Threepenny Opera (Open Fist Theater) and another Mother Courage (The Antaeus Company). The latter three are still running, and yet a third production of Mother Courage plus The Caucasian Chalk Circle are slated to appear on local stages this year. Of course, one is tempted to attribute the local Brecht revival to the German’s sardonic complaints, often set to Kurt Weill’s dissonant music, about social injustice and the folly of war. These are themes that, not to overstate the obvious, strike a certain resonance during, say, one particular week in May 2005, when a federal judge allows United Airlines to strip away promised-for-decades pensions from thousands of company employees, while legislation is in the works to reinstate debtors prisons (not seen since the days of Charles Dickens), possibly for those very UA pensioners who can no longer pay their bills. Meanwhile, another $80 billion of our taxes goes to the Mission Accomplished Iraq Project to promote democracy in the Middle East, if you believe that, which means much of the money goes to Halliburton (which just received $72 million in bonuses from the Army for its fine work), which means a good billion or two will disappear without a trace, or an explanation, or an investigation. The image of fat cats gorging while everyone else gets chased out of the kitchen is an anchoring theme in Bertolt Brecht’s work. The growing disillusion with our society’s reneging on its promise of a fair playing field might account for the resurgence of Brecht, but for that theory to hold, Brecht’s plays would be showing up in cities across America, and that’s just not so. The San Francisco Bay Area, New York City and Seattle have no Brecht playing this week. The Chicago Reader reports a mere single production of a Brecht play in the Windy City: The Caucasian Chalk Circle. This is obviously a local phenomenon. Here’s an explanation: In 2005, Los Angeles is more fine-tuned to themes of social justice and injustice than in most quarters of America. The evidence of this lies in the strongest and most organized labor movement in the country. Southern Californians are certainly no kinder or gentler than anyone else, but at the grass roots, they do seem to be angrier when hard-working people get left in the dirt. Even if they don’t win, local supermarket employees and janitors and student workers protest with unusual tenacity, and receive considerable support for it. Last year at the ballot box, the voters of modest, middle-class Inglewood — no haven for radicals — turned down Wal-Mart’s attempt to bulldoze its way past city regulations and protections. That’s rare, and the consciousness behind it might explain why Brecht is now such a welcome guest in these parts. Pacific Resident Theater’s production of Brecht/Weill’s Happy End (Brecht wrote the lyrics, Weill the music) opened in late January and just got extended to mid June, though with cast changes. Written in 1929, with a book attributed to translator Elisabeth Hauptmann, who used the named Dorothy Lane, the actual source material of this prequel to Guys and Dolls is a bit murky. We do know it was produced on the heels of Brecht/Weill’s hit The Threepenny Opera. Happy End is set in 1919 Chicago, a city neither Brecht nor Weill had ever visited at the time they were writing about it. But that doesn’t matter. The musical is just a cartoon about the mob, populated with ghoulishly masked allegorical characters such as The Professor (William Lithgow), The Reverend (Andrew Parks), Baby Face (Tassos Pappas) and a very pre-P.C. enforcer named Dr. Nakamura (“Onry too grad too obrige”), gleefully played by Christopher Shaw. As part of the protection racket, the ring rehearses techniques of intimidating shopkeepers. Before long, their stoically independent Irish thug, Bill Cracker (Timothy V. Murphy — a muscular, somber, Celtic version of Popeye, sans pipe) tries to contain his ardor for Salvation Army lieutenant Lillian Holiday (Lesley Fera, more Betty Grable–ish than ever). Poor Lilly’s banished and spurned for telling the morally compromising truth about her whereabouts — alone with Bill — at the very time he’s accused of having committed a murder. Truth and consequences — a theme Brecht knew well. Dean Mora barks out scene settings from an upstage spinet — the sole item of musical accompaniment for the lovely voices — while Dan Bonnell’s winking direction snaps like a gym towel. R. Charles Otte’s period staging of The Threepenny Opera for Hollywood’s Open Fist Theater in its grand warehouse space (about to be demolished for more condos) has a musty Edwardian feel, as though Otte were trying to re-create G.W. Pabst’s 1931 film on stage, despite Robert David MacDonald’s vernacular American translation. MacDonald reinterprets Eric Bentley’s translation, “The world is poor and man’s a shit” to “Life’s a bitch and then you die.” Neither captures the sarcasm of the original German, but at least Bentley’s hints at an economic basis for human misery. MacDonald’s more generalized, less barbed bumper-sticker lyric is one tiny emblem for the soft underbelly to Otte’s production. Bearded Bjørn Johnson makes for an unlikely Mac the Knife, coming off as a far more pleasant bigamist-thief-killer than diabolical, despite his marrying the police chief’s daughter in a vacant warehouse with stolen furniture. Will Mac feel the noose when it’s no longer expedient for Police Chief Tiger Brown (Joe Hulser) to protect Mac, his old army pal? With Johnson’s Mac being more amiable than wily, that’s hardly a question. So with suspense pretty much shot, we’re left with some striking atmosphere (A. Jeffrey Schoenberg’s costumes and the set by Bill Eigenbrodt and Meghan Rogers) and Weill’s glorious score, nicely rendered by the ensemble to the accompaniment of an excellent eight-piece band. Petite Pam Heffler turns in a spry Mrs. Peachum — the wife of Mac’s accuser, Mr. Peachum (David Castellani), who leads the local beggars union. Josie Gundy sparkles as the Peachums’ daughter, Polly (though why she’s taken her rival Jenny’s “Pirate Song” is something of a mystery). Kitty McNamee's puppets-on-a-string choreography to “The Jealousy Duet” featuring Polly arguing with Mac's other wife, Lucy Brown (Rebecca Metz), around their jailed husband is among a series of shining moments when director Otte has found a blend of presentational style and crisp technique in which the actors drive the action, rather than the other way around. Anteaus Company’s Mother Courage pulls its wagon on the talent of Anne Gee Byrd in the title role of an impoverished seller of wares, wandering with her three children across war-torn, 17th-century Europe. The war that fuels her meager enterprise also steals her children, yet she’s terrified that peace might break out. What would she then do for a living? Byrd’s Mother possesses an almost cavalier good humor to get through the slog of her life. She runs the risk of being glib, but that’s a far sight better than watching a woman showing us how she’s tortured by fate — which is the role’s looming trap. The polarities of victim and heroine are almost impossibly difficult to balance, yet Byrd meets the challenge face to face. Her tilt toward lightheartedness comes at the cost of both range and rage, so that Andy J. Robinson’s lovingly conceived production slips in and out of focus. But, like Open Fist’s Threepenny, when it’s in, there’s nothing quite like it. And the war keeps going. HAPPY END | By BERTOLT BRECHT and KURT WEILL | At PACIFIC RESIDENT THEATER, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice | Through June 12 | (310) 822-8392 THE THREEPENNY OPERA | By BERTOLT BRECHT and KURT WEILL | At OPEN FIST THEATER, 1625 N. La Brea Ave., Hollywood | Through June 12 | (323) 882-6912 MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN | By BERTOLT BRECHT | Presented by ANTAEUS COMPANY at the NEWPLACE THEATER CENTER, 4900 Vineland Ave., North Hollywood | Through June 12 | (866) 811-4111

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