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A CurtainUp Review
In the Jungle of the City
by Les Gutman
Attempting to escape the heat of the streets on an unseasonably hot May day, one is thrust right back into the cauldron in Brecht's In the Jungle of the City. Written in 1923 and set in Chicago in the previous decade, it ignites on a day when everyone is complaining that it is 93º in the shade. Its nihilistic story of economics run amok, of a world in which everything can be bought for a price, returns us to our own not-much-changed jungle with a chill.
This is early Brecht (his third foray into playwriting), written at a time he was still very much a poet. The fingerprints of Rimbaud (of whom Brecht was an enthusiast) can be found all over the play, in text, tone and theme. It's a work that plays out in the cesspool of a fever dream, expressionistic and alienating in a way that became more pronounced as the playwright matured. In its prologue, he implores his audience to focus on effects rather than motives, to ride the play for its emotional impact rather than embarking on analytic detours. This is not a play in which Brecht rails against Capitalism; instead, it's his assault on humanity's barren landscape, the playing field on which 20th Century economics will thrive.
This is not an easy play to present engagingly, and it is to Irondale's credit that it has both found a translation that is reasonably accessible, and staged it convincingly. Its central tension, a figurative boxing match between two men, is set against an ominous background of degradation. Its rounds are set apart not only by the clang of a bell, but also by Sarah Adams's affecting choreography and discordant strains of unsettling live music, evoking the effects Weill's music will later have on Brecht's words.
George Garga (Christian Brandjes), a young man who works as a clerk in a lending library now that his family has moved from the prairies to Chicago, is confronted by a Malaysian lumber dealer named Shlink (Terry Greiss) who wants to buy his opinions. Insisting his opinions are not for sale, the idealistic Garga resists, fueling increasing pressure from the masochistic Shlink and his co-horts, Skinny (Sven Miller), Worm (Michael-David Gordon) and Baboon (Jack Lush). After Shlink humiliates him for not thinking of his destitute family -- Garga's father (also Lush), mother (Patrena Murray) and sister (Sarah Adams) subsist on fish heads -- and has Baboon steal his girlfriend, Jane (Carolyn Fischer), he finally forsakes his cherished "freedom" and relents.
What Shlink, as bizarre a creature as anyone could conjure up, wants is a contest, one in which he will ultimately be destroyed. Giving over his business to Garga, rendering himself a slave, first to Garga and then to his family, Shlink torments Garga into combat, infuriating him by taking up with his sister. (She will end up a prostitute). It's the "spiritual fight" he craves. In the end, Garga and Shlink will spend three weeks holed up together in a fight to the finish. Garga will survive, seized of everything and, alas, nothing.
Brecht's tableau is of a discomfiting reverie including the underbelly of society, sado-masochism, racism and homosexuality (realized fairly explicitly here). It brings to mind elements of Artaud, Brecht's later A Threepenny Opera and Fassbinder's Brechtian influences. Jim Niesen has utilized the broad stage of Theater for a New City's mainstage effectively, and holds the flailing elements of the action together well. Ken Rothchild's set, Asian influences that collide with the harshness of moving metal link panels, are well served by Randy Glickman's elaborate and coldly haunting lighting. But what really gives this production its distinctive feel is Ms. Adams's choreography and the jarring music.
Performances in the main roles are, surprisingly but not unhappily, understated. Though one might wish for a bit more, the effect seems precisely what Brecht urged, depriving us of a shovel with which we could dig deeper and instead maintaining our focus on the action. Greiss and Brandjes come across more as victims buffeted by visible or invisible forces than as careful plotters; ditto for Sarah Adams, whose Mary Garga is more driven than driving. Miller, Gordon, Lush and Fischer create a suitably decadent environment, offset by the down-home innocence of Murray and Lush as the parents. Casting is color-blind, and no effort has been made to perform within stereotypes.
These are choices that can be frustrating for audiences, but they are consistent with the playwright's intent. For a play that is not often performed, it's commendable that Niesen and company have resisted the temptation to make it something else. If we focus, as we are instructed, on effect rather than the road traveled to get there, we are left with a harsh, almost subliminal, resonance.