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: Bertolt Brecht’s “Baal”

Going On a Tear With Bertolt Brecht


EP Theater presents:

by Bertolt Brecht
directed by A.J. Ware and Hunter Kennedy
through October 3rd (ticket info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

One thing you can say about EP Theater’s production of Baalthey do nothing by halves. They flounder and flop like a fish out of water in the first act, only to snap into riveting concentration and power with the second.

Written in 1918, when Bertolt Brecht was twenty years young, snapping a whip against his thigh as he accosted women in the streets, Baal clearly shows Decadent and Aesthetic movement influences—the dark side of 19th century Romanticism. Its action is raw and scandalous; its language is thickly poetic – so thickly poetic that character motives can be obscured. So if the actor hasn’t made clear choices about what the words mean, there’s no way the audience will ever deduce it. It’s a production you can both love and hate, kind of like the eponymous character himself.

But, in the final analysis, what’s not to love about two bad-boy artists tearing through women, booze, money, towns, and finally each other–violating every convention, assaulting morality to the last breath? It’s been quite while since I’ve witnessed dramatic characters with this much absolute thinking and vehement passion. That’s what makes it so groovy. The addition of The Loneliest Monk, a Chicago rock-art duo, playing a live original score, creates the perfect unifying and satisfying bohemian touch.

What’s not so groovy is the monstrously amateurish first act. “We tweaked and tweaked and tweaked the writing to get it to the point it is now,” says Executive Director, Jason Ewers. “There were scene sections we just didn’t know what to do with. But what attracted us to this early Brecht work was just how raw it was.”

Perhaps then, that obnoxious term, work-in-progress, still applies here. The actors still have to gain better mastery of Brecht’s language. Some actors do not have the heft and projection to deliver it, while others attempt to build dramatic tension by shouting lines. The ensemble cast is cohesive and meaningfully responsive to each other, but work on clarifying and personalizing the subtext to all that heavy-duty poetry remains the bulk of unfinished work for the first act.

Thank goodness the difference between first and second acts is like night and day. Thank goodness A. J. Ware and Hunter Kennedy’s direction brings on full-bore pansexuality, as well as the physical and emotional devastations of amoral excess. Baal and Ekart are a fabulously doomed couple, even if Baal is the more fabulously doomed of the two.

Finally, it needs some nudity. Seriously. That’s not a prurient suggestion. Okay, it is. But is it in keeping with the spirit of Decadence.

One can shake ones’ head in astonishment at the way this particular show swings from depths to great heights, but no one can deny EP Theater’s ability to take risks. Its capacity for daring and risk wins it respect, even with this significantly flawed and unfinished production.

Rating: ««