Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Two local stage productions

This review of two local stage productions appeared in today's San Francisco Bay Guardian. Check it out at
Mother Courage
By Robert Avila

The sideshow denizens who scramble out onstage at the Victoria to mime the evening's prologue constitute an impressive assortment of freaks and wild beasts, stooping giants and bearded ladies strutting and marauding in the nostalgic glow of a flickering projection lamp. But they take second billing to what a supertitle introduces as "the most untamed beast of them all." That would be unbridled sexuality, in the person of our heroine, Lulu.

It's now more than a century since Frank Wedekind, the forefather of German expressionism, gave creative birth to Lulu, a charmingly insatiable and just too desirable young woman and singer from several good homes, thereby throwing sexual hypocrisy back in the faces of his bourgeois audience. Today sexuality is hardly less controversial to the bourgeois even if, say, a film like Shortbus simultaneously suggests we've come a short way. Shortbus gets a happy ending, after all, while the result of pitting anarchic human sexuality against a repressed and repressive patriarchal society in Lulu's day had to spell tragedy. Still, though the results are grim, untamed sex emerges glorious if not victorious in Lulu: A Black and White Silent Play, Chicago-based Silent Theatre Company's lightly and cheerfully lewd and cheekily clever production.

Both form and content marked out Wedekind's two antinaturalistic Lulu plays — Earth Spirit (1895) and Pandora's Box (1902) — as exceedingly modern and risqué for their day. Silent Theatre's silent-movie-style staging builds shrewdly on permutations of form and nostalgia by translating back to the stage G.W. Pabst's famous 1929 silent screen adaptation (which starred Louise Brooks and her distinctive bob) in a single one-hour-and-fifteen-minute act. The results benefit from a game cast (including a pert Kyla Louise Webb as Lulu), as well as shrewd and playful staging, filled with the vivacious gestures and grotesque exaggerations of the silent screen and spiritedly choreographed to the infectious accompaniment of pianist-composer Isaiah Robinson and his spiraling movie-house score.

Although principally an expressionist, Wedekind also pointed in the direction Bertolt Brecht was to take a generation or so later in an already post-expressionist mode. But then, Wedekind and Brecht had much in common, including a penchant for cabaret songs and reimagining the traditions of the carnival and the circus in assailing in boldly experimental form the ferociousness and folly of the social order. That circus-cabaret theme is certainly evident in the Berkeley Rep and La Jolla Playhouse coproduction of Brecht'sMother Courage, not least in the utterly fresh yet evocative new score by composer Gina Leishman (among other things founder of Mr. Wau-Wa, a quintet devoted to Brechtian songs). Director Lisa Peterson's sharp cast and vigorous, inspired staging take full advantage of playwright David Hare's earthy and immediate translation to bring Brecht's antiwar play resonantly alive.

Mother Courage, the wily peddler who with her three children follows the battling armies of 17th-century Europe's Thirty Years War to hock her wares and make her living, remains one of the most famous antiheroes of a decidedly antiheroic, antiromantic playwright. But that doesn't seem to stop audiences from identifying her (unironically) with that intentionally ironic name of hers. Indeed, rendered with a fine Weimar-esque soulfulness and grit by Ivonne Coll, she's a charismatic figure despite her outstanding flaw: her parasitic reliance on war at the inevitable, albeit unintended, expense of her offspring.

Brecht's play, in addressing itself to the class enemy lurking behind the delusional divisions of religion and territory, systematically undercuts any legitimacy claimed by the warmongering values of courage and valor. The Chaplain (a deftly comic turn by Patrick Kerr), for instance, easily exchanges his cassock for some street clothes when the need arises, just as surely as the Catholic flag comes down and the Protestant one goes up when the winds of battle change direction. And by showing how Mother Courage, having tied her cart to the scam of war, must hang on to it at all costs — even that of her children's lives — the play doubly negates her name in the circumstances it exposes. But maybe it’s Brecht’s ambivalence even more than his excoriating attack on the hideous cheat of war that seems utterly contemporary: the strangely productive and seductive balancing act taking place between his dismal view of human nature — alternately vicious and comic in its outline — and his overweening determination to awaken his audience to the truth and thereby to change the world. 

Through Oct. 29
Thurs.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.
Victoria Theatre
2961 16th St., SF
(415) 863-7576

Through Oct. 22
Tues. and Fri., 8 p.m.; Wed., 7 p.m.; Thurs. and Sat., 2 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 and 7 p.m.
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
2015 Addison, Roda Theatre, Berk.
(510) 647-2949

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