REVIEW: In the Jungle of Cities (Ka-Tet Theatre Company)

   
   

Absurdist Play is an Acquired Taste

 

Scene from Bertolt Brech's "In The Jungle of Cities" - Ka-Tet Theatre

   
Ka-Tet Theatre Company presents
  
In the Jungle of Cities
   
Written by Bertolt Brecht
Directed by
Max Truax
Translated by
Anselm Hollo
at Red Tape Theatre, 621 W. Belmont (map)
through November 20  |  tickets: $20   |  more info

To not hate In the Jungle of Cities, the new production by Ka-Tet Theatre Company, you have to have some context of the work and its eccentric, yet heavily influential, playwright. The play was penned by Bertolt Brecht, a German playwright and devout Marxist whose modernist take on drama helped him carve out a unique niche in the world of theatre. His style of theatre is far from the traditional. The audience is discouraged from identifying with the characters. Rather, they are to see them as societal symbols personified. Meanwhile, the actions of the play are less like a plot and more like a long and winding allegory.

Scene from Bertolt Brech's "In The Jungle of Cities" - Ka-Tet TheatrePersonally, I’m not a fan of plays that require an audience to have a familiarity with the author’s aesthetic and body of work in order to derive enjoyment. It just feels so pretentious. But for those that are either already Brecht fans or don’t mind doing some research beforehand, you’ll definitely be pleased with Ka-Tet’s efforts in bringing the bizarrely absurdist piece to life.

The play takes place in Chicago. Two men are engaged in a bitter fight. One is a book clerk named George Garga (James Errico). The other is a wealthy Chinese lumber merchant named Schlink (Jeremy Clark). Going into the specifics of the plot for a play like this is worthless as there really isn’t much of a story but rather a seemingly stream of consciousness series of actions. True, there are bursts of coherent scenes here and there, such as Schlink handing over his lumberyard to Garga. But overall it’s a frantic, and sometimes frustrating, piece of work.

Although the uninitiated will likely leave the theater scratching their heads, even those unfamiliar with Brecht’s body of work will appreciate Clark’s spellbinding portrayal of Schlink. With an intense gaze and a commanding presence, Clark’s performance is gripping. It doesn’t hurt that he can cry on cue, too.

The supporting cast is also quite talented, including Rory Jobst as The Barker, a narrator-like figure who opens each scene with a strange and detached sort of rant before suddenly, as if possessed by a spirit, spouts out the scene’s time, date and location.

Scene from Bertolt Brech's "In The Jungle of Cities" - Ka-Tet Theatre

Despite its sheer weight and weirdness, the play is surprisingly funny. Perhaps this is in part because it is a translation of the original, so the language is comical. But I’d like to think that this was Brecht’s intention, to highlight the absurdity of our greedy capitalist culture through absurd humor.

Max Truax directs, using the Red Tape Theatre’s open space to his full advantage. The expansive and bare-boned set has the feel of a desolate city, thanks in part also to the use of a fog machine. During the play’s most charged moments, Truax positions the actors to play extremely far downstage, making the emotional intensity of the scene’s that much more effective.

In the Jungle of Cities will certainly not be everyone’s cup of tea. In fact, I can’t imagine many having the palette for it. But despite the lunacy of it all, the production succeeds thanks to some strong performances and adept direction.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
   

In the Jungle of Cities - Ka-Tet Theatre - poster

 

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REVIEW: Ten Unknowns (Will Act for Food)

No great truths revealed

 

10-unknowns

 
Will Act for Food presents
 
Ten Unknowns
 
By Jon Robin Baitz
Directed by
Scott Pasko, assisted by Sally LaRowe
Athenaeum Theatre, Studio 1, 2936 N. Southport Ave. (map)
Through May 29  |  Tickets: $20; $15 with food donation  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Jon Robin Baitz’s Ten Unknowns, now in Chicago premiere from Will Act for Food, debuted in 2001, and it’s set in 1992, but it feels even older, dated, like something out of the 1970s. I thought we’d got beyond gratuitous nude scenes and endless yelling about exploitation and the debasement of culture.

Its Lincoln Center premiere received handsome reviews, so possibly this complex drama fit better into 2001 than it does into 2010, or perhaps that production simply overcame the script’s flaws. Scott Pasko’s interpretation seems fine, though, and the cast does well, so I think the play has just not aged well.

The nature of art, the relationship of art and commerce, the roles of assistants vs. collaborators, the personal weaknesses of artists, generation gaps, homosexuality, ecology, the 10-unknowns-croppedugliness of American culture … Baitz packs all this and more, in rising volume, into his very talky story about a drunken old failure of a painter and three young people who come into his life without any understanding of where he’s come from.

Malcolm Raphelson, hailed as a promising figurative artist when his work featured as part of the 1949 exhibition "Ten Unknowns," soon vanished into obscurity with the rise of abstract impressionism. In 1963, he exiled himself to rural Mexico, mescal and a mean existence. Dennis Newport‘s gravel-voiced portrayal dances from grim bemusement to naughty charm to raw power, although he often seems too vigorous for a 75-year-old man who’s been living in a bottle most of three decades.

When some of Raphelson’s work surfaces to acclaim, New York art dealer Trevor Fabricant believes time is ripe for a retrospective and a lucrative comeback. He sends his own young assistant and sometime lover Judd Sturgess down to work with Raphelson and help him create some new work. When the dealer comes down to view the results and arrange the showing, however, the painter resists.

The polished but uptight Fabricant, for unaccountable reasons, is from South Africa (Baitz’s boyhood home). That’s distracting — not only because Ben Veatch, otherwise nicely smarmy, mangles the accent — and detracts from the Ugly American theme the rest of the play projects.

Judd, talented and anxious to learn from the older artist, is a junkie. Neil Huff, brimming with attitude, does his best to create a character but the script gives him little to build on. His rants and revelations seem to come out of nowhere.

Meanwhile, Raphelson picks up an unlikely fourth for this quartet, Julia Bryant, a Berkeley biology student researching nearly extinct frogs. Rachel Neuman‘s pretty, perky, wholesome Julia contrasts beautifully with the tormented and arty bunch — at least until the unraveling second act, when Judd loses it, Raphelson gives in, and Julia reveals her dark past and the rest of herself, too.

 
 
Rating: ★★½
 
 

REVIEW: 200 Bullets and Seven Poison Apples (n.u.f.a.n.)

Dirt-cheap dirty jokes

 commerical

n.u.f.a.n ensemble presents:

200 Bullets and Seven Poison Apples

 

By Paul Barile
Directed by
Rachel Edwards Harvith
At
Prop Thtr, Avondale Through March 27 (more info)

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

As the judge remarked the day that he
acquitted my Aunt Hortense,
‘To be smut  It must be ut-
-terly without redeeming social importance.’       —Tom Lehrer, "Smut"

In the Golden Age of radio theater, every serial had its soundman, the crew member who created the sound effects, often by hand — clapping coconuts together for hoof beats or twisting sheets of cellophane for a crackling fire. In n.u.f.a.n. ensemble‘s staged radio play, 200 Bullets and Seven Poison Apples, Mike Dunbar, in the role Hap the Foley Guy, spends most of the show blowing bubbles into a jar of water, clanking chains and beating cymbals, and creating convincing sounds while working up to a stretch of brilliantly frenzied physical comedy that’s the highlight of the show.

And just about all that keeps it from meeting Lehrer’s definition of "smut and nothing but."

joe irvingMost of Paul Barile’s world-premiere comedy is a gleeful barrage of raunchy double entendres, ribald puns and blatant sexual innuendos — like a 1940s party record, only filthier. Think humor at the level of “I Used to Work in Chicago" or "Shaving Cream" crossed with the Urban Dictionary.

If dirty jokes give you a thrill, "200 Bullets" will keep you laughing. And since tickets to the late-night show are just $5, the low comedy comes at low cost.

The play is set behind the scenes at a 1937 radio show. Due to a strike, management has brought in inexperienced scab writers — prisoners in a volunteer program — who’ve created a futuristic radio drama pitting humanitarian scientist Dr. October, heroine Liberty Pink and her sidekick, Attaboy, against the malevolent, power-seeking Malice and M’Lady and their henchman, Bilge. As a result, regular advertisers have dropped out, and new sponsors, such as Wicked Willie male supplements, have provided unusual commercials. The last-minute arrangements mean the radio actors go on the air without first having seen the script.

The ensembleKeely Maureen Brennan, Justin Cagney, John Champion, Mary Czerwinski, Joseph E. Hudson, Emily Kane and Ben Veatch — all do a fine job in their dual roles as radio actors and futuristic heroes and villains, while Zach Uttich plays the mostly off-stage Eugene the Engineer. Barile’s script leaves no place for the characters to discuss the peculiarities of the radio play, so all their reaction is visual, and often funnier than the jokes themselves.

Director Rachel Edwards Harvith keeps things moving as the cast segues from the lewd lines of the silly radio story to even more unlikely advertising jingles and back, and Dunbar is constantly in action. In a fun attention to detail, picketers stood outside the theater on opening night.

cagney and veatch mary and emily two

Despite the genuine, if often sophomoric humor, I found myself thinking what a waste it was for all this talent to focus on something so nearly devoid of redeeming social value. This is n.u.f.a.n.’s first deviation into the underworld of blue humor. The ensemble mainly does brief festivals of one-acts and monologues; Barile, who was once music columnist for Chicago’s erstwhile Lerner Newspapers while I was entertainment editor there, has authored a handful of full-length plays.

The first few minutes of "200 Bullets," setting the stage for the strike substitution and introducing the characters, complete with their political biases, is so well crafted that I was sorry to see them disappear almost entirely into the rude comedy of the radio play within the play.

Other bits aren’t so well-done. While folks looking for laughs won’t be bothered, history buffs may be troubled by the script’s endless anachronisms. I won’t go into the smuttier expressions that would have been unknown in 1937, but other examples include the term "foley," which comes out of the motion-picture industry, not radio — a reference to Jack Foley (1891–1967), a pioneer in the creation of specially created sound effects for Universal Studios’ early talkies. Foley started with the 1929 "Show Boat," but he borrowed effects already created by radio soundmen; and the allusion wasn’t used beyond Universal’s sound stages until the 1960s.

In other instances, faked commercial refer to PMS and credit cards. Although symptoms have been recognized for millennia, the term "pre-menstrual syndrome" was first used in the 1950s. And "charge cards," per se, weren’t developed until the 1940s. I’m quibbling, but even filthy fantasy needs consistent context.

While this harebrained comedy is definitely an adult show full of lewd language, you’d have to be fairly prudish to be offended by it. Vulgar but not vilely so, it’s a long way from, say, "The Aristocrats." Frivolous as it is, "200 Bullets" is harmless and mostly amusing.

 

Rating: ★★★

Notes: Performances are at 10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Allow time to find street parking.

doctor october