SEX IS A COMMODITY and, for that matter, so are opinions. That's one of the messages amongst the poverty, prostitution and general decadence in Bertolt Brecht's In the Jungle of Cities. It's also one of the difficult ideas the actors in Brecht's play (they changed the name to just Jungle of Cities) must portray in the confines of the Loeb Experimental Theater.
Hardly a glamorous task since many Brecht characters require players to underplay, tone emotion down and frequently act like robots, the Ex players do a good job infusing personality into their characters and playing up psychological conflicts. But, they probably also inject too much spirit into the characters, watering down themes outside the psyches of the individuals.
Set in Chicago (a city that really symbolizes all metropolises) just before World War I, Jungle of Cities is about a duel between two men: Shlink (Nicholas Lawrence), the rich and heartless owner of a lumber mill and George Garga (Charles Puckette), the poor and lively library attendant. Spying the youthful fighting spirit in Garga at the play's beginning Shlink hands his business over to Garga, giving the poor agrarian boy a shot at material comfort and power. Garga nabs the offer while Shlink takes on the country boy's family obligations. The switch ultimately turns Garga's family relation's topsy-turvy and transforms him into a worse monster than Shlink had been as lumber boss.
Both benefit: Shlink tempers his mean spirit and grows more humane and Garga gets power he never before had. And both lose: Shlink forfeits his company and is faced full force with the prospect of growing old while Garga defies his family and his class.
Throughout the play, other characters also sink deeper into the tribulations of modern life. Garga's family falls apart, his sister Marie (Brigit Fasolino) is forced into prostitution, and his girlfriend (Kristen Gasser) moves closes to the play's shady life. The play's 13 characters, all feeling extreme alienation from one another, grope desperately for something stable (including each other) in an innately chaotic world. Of course, none of them find it.
In act, the audience doesn't find it either, because there are no heroes in Jungle of Cities. Just as one character shows signs of humanity, his/her dark side is exposed, leaving the crowd no player to identify with.
THE FIGHTING, COMMODITY SEX and broken family ties intend to make a social statement beyond the psychological wars going on between the characters. Namely, that the emerging modern city at the beginning of the 20th century brought some bad living conditions and, considering Brecht was a Marxist, an intensified capitalism that had extended not only into the lumber mills but also into people's sex lives. The proletarian hero George Garga's change into an authoritarian lumber owner also points to the submerged importance of the individual and the increased importance of the social role in which the individual acts. Garga and Shlink aren't such bad guys, they are just destroyed by the lumber capitalist role that they are forced to play.
A bit mechanical at the start, Puckette plays in full-form after he's been tranformed into a mean-and-nasty lumber mill owner. Playing up the character's naivete and dislocation from the rest of the cast at the begining of the play would have made the metamorphosis more striking, however, Lawrence primes the hautiness and annoying overconfidence of Shlink well in the beginning and carries some of that luggage over to his new role without showing all of Shlink's new-found sensitivity.
Fasolino, as Garga's sister, swings well between the provincial and tragically bawdy sides of her character.
Two others stick out for their humorous roles. Kerrick Johnson, who plays the punchy and sarcastic Collie Couch, speaks to the audience occassionally to mention gossip about absurdities in the other characters. And Pauls Raudseps, as the happy-go-lucky Pat Mankey, in his few lines is often a comic relief from the grime trials of the other characters.
For the cramped space in the Loeb Ex, set director Stephen O'Donnell does a great job. A massive subway bridge (which resembles a structure used in the ART production of Beckett's Endgame) runs the length of the stage while black-and-white slides of dirty city life flash onto a film screen at the back of the stage.
The slide machine is quite effective in one particularly funny scene. As Collie Couch begins her story of an unlucky dog with a life analogous to Garga's, the screen takes a break from its usual depressing scenes to show a pipy little canine drawing laughs from the audience. The picture complement, though small in size, helps bring a bit of the harsh city to the relatively cozy Ex stage.
The Loeb Ex production downplays some Brechtian flavor. An example is the way the players place more emphasis on dialogue between each other and less on their narrations and asides to the audience. These little connections with the crowd reveal the players are basically human beings that are acting rather than characters being played by human beings. All of this may be a welcome relief since some of his android and too-close-to-the-audience characters can often be irritating. Nevertheless, the story line in the Ex production still delves into the same dark proletarian themes that are depressing on the surface and curiously absurd at the core.