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: The Gay American (The Ruckus)

Sexual fear and loathing in American politics

  TheGayAmerican_Production09

  
The Ruckus presents
 
The Gay American
  
by Kristian O’Hare
directed by
Allison Shoemaker
at
the side project, 1439 W. Jarvis (map)
through May 26  tickets: $10  |  more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Washington D.C. is the perfect place for a gay sex scandal. The nexus of American political power, the district is already so rife with desperation, loneliness, self-loathing, overweening hypocrisy and insidious self-compromise that the closeted  queers fit right in. Hand in glove. It’s both here, and in the benighted environs of New Jersey, that Kristian O’Hare’s dark, freewheeling satire The Gay American takes its stand. Director Allison Shoemaker has pulled together a sharp and seductive cast, luring us with laser-like sarcasm and poignant reflection into TheGayAmerican_Production11the small studio space at the side project theatre space in Rogers Park, where The Ruckus has set up shop for this world premiere.

Their production will sell out every night, if there is any justice in this world. The Gay American is top-drawer, savage American comedy. Its script is an outrageous, non-stop interrogation of the value of gay identity politics at its intersection with its closeted presence on the national political scene. Coming out, while a cornerstone in the valorous struggle for sexual identity equality, yellows sickly with corruption, duplicity, and solipsism in the hands of a politico as sleazy and self-promoting as Jim McGreevey (Neal Starbird).

Scene: our nation’s capitol. Gay pages suck up to powerful Washington players in the pursuit of a political career wherein they get to be the top. A closeted power player and vociferous foe of sexual predators, Mark Foley (Walter Brody) keeps a stable of young pages that he can text suggestive comments to back and forth during their term in the page program. After page graduation, once the boys are legal enough, he meets up with them for sex at the hotel room that is “the second most favorite address in D.C.” New Jersey Governor McGreevey, an up-and-coming presidential hopeful, siphons off a Page (Aaron Dean) to serve as his personal aide, whether for his own personal service, or to service him and his wife Dina (Julie Cowden) during one of their “Friday Night Specials”–starting with drinks and jalapeno poppers at no less a place than TGIF Fridays.

All the above is true and established fact. In some respects, O’Hare’s wild and absurd script has written itself and there is no way that he can top the inanity that passes for political reality in America. But the real charm lies in his capacity to craft 3-dimensional comic characters; allowing them softer, sadder, even more poetic moments, while never letting up on the cynical, mercurial rationales by which they sell themselves and each other out. The rest of the charm relies on the crisp and exacting pace with which this show is executed. If there’s an award for lightening fast scene changes in a mercilessly cramped space, this cast and crew have earned it.

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Beyond scene changes, what a joy to witness a complex and sophisticated script fleshed out by such a brilliantly comic cast. Starbird’s Jim McGreevey looks like he has sprung, fully formed, from the New Jersey muck. His office—his real office—is a bathroom stall, for which he explains his preference on two separate occasions: “I love the bathroom stall. It reminds me of my Catholic upbringing,” and “Remember Clark Kent and Superman? That’s the way I feel about bathroom stalls. I enter it Irish Catholic, middle class, married, a normal guy . . . and after a nameless fuck, I leave it feeling like Superman.” For his part, Walter Brody looks so much like Mark Foley he had me doing double takes all evening long. He also captures the fluid ease with which a true Washington player makes the switch from rank exploiter to pillar of morality in 2.8 seconds.

Joshua Davis renders a deliciously tender and corruptible Golan Cipal. He’s the lover that McGreevey continually mistakes for Mexican and, in a 9/11 environment, promotes to homeland security advisor at a six-figure salary–even though Cipal is still an Israeli citizen. O’Hare is ready to play the romance card regarding Cipal’s involvement with McGreevey and Davis digs deep into the role’s contradictions,  evolving Golan’s progress from warm, poetic naïveté to gullible and overwhelmed self-compromise for one’s lover to immersion in self-loathing rage from a lover scorned.

TheGayAmerican_Production14But his rage cannot match the post-partum blackness in the soul of Dina McGreevey (Julie Cowden). I might have wished that O’Hare could have played up the sleaze factor a little more for this character. Certainly the real Dina Matos McGreevey deserves it. O’Hare relies just a little too much on “poor, betrayed woman” tropes for his Dina. Only once does he have her acknowledge her own complicity in her lavender marriage. Plus, a little research reveals that those “Friday Night Specials” were going on well before marriage. Nevertheless, Cowden’s performance is immaculate in its searing emotional truth. Her boozy, pill-popping chats with Jersey gal pal Patty (Elise Mayfield) become especially memorable, particularly when Patty morphs into Constance Wilde. Now that’s a side to Constance that Oscar may never have seen.

Aaron Dean and Freddie Donovan play a perfect pair of congressional pages—perfect bookends portraying the young gay have and have-nots in Washington’s political game playing. Stevie Chaddock gives us a sympathetic and vulnerable Morag–ignored by her parents as they enjoy the “cup quality” of their coffee, lost in the brave new world of cyber-dating, hoping to gain something from exploiting herself before others exploit her. I might have wished for more empowerment for Morag, Page, and Philly Buster but that will never come to pass in this world. No, in this dark, gay tale of Washington sexual shenanigans everyone loses, especially when they think they are winning.

    
     
Rating: ★★★½
    
    

 

 

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