Screwball and Brecht don't fit easily in the same sentence. Yet that's exactly the combination in the German playwright's Happy End, which has mysteriously emerged from obscurity to see not one but two Bay Area productions in the 2005-2006 season. And while the second one, coming up at ACT next June, will doubtless be polished and lavishly staged, can it possibly be as goofily adorable as the current one from Woman's Will? If it's hard to go wrong with Chicago gangsters doing a little soft-shoe to live accompaniment, it's even harder to go wrong when those gangsters are played by well-cast women in big suits, the stage combat is downright silly, and the audience is seeded with fake prostitutes during the second act.
Sure, the story is absurd. It was absurd in 1929 when Brecht, Kurt Weill, and Brecht's collaborator, secretary, and lover Elisabeth Hauptmann tried to capitalize on their success the year before with The Threepenny Opera by writing a Romeo-and-Juliet-esque tale of gangsters and Salvation Army workers clashing on Christmas Eve. Will hardened criminal Bill Cracker find redemption with top Salvation sermonizer Lt. Lillian Holliday, or will their association bar her from the Army's ranks forever? Why is seductive criminal mastermind the Fly so angry? And where's the loot from the big heist? Brecht was in love with the idea of the sort of American gangsters you'd find in the movies, and that's what this "comic melodrama" offers -- it's big and loose, with occasional jabs at capitalism consistent with Brecht's politics.
But Happy End didn't do so well; indeed, the first production at Berlin's Theater am Schiffbauerdamm closed after seven performances. Brecht disavowed responsibility for the work, affixing a pseudonym, although elements would resurface later in his Saint Joan of the Stockyards. Whatever the case, the play is not as well known as the Brecht collective's heavier works (Mother Courage, Caucasian Chalk Circle, etc.) which is a shame, because while it's still political, it's big fun, especially in Village Voice critic Michael Feingold's translation.
The well-chosen cast reeks of playful camaraderie. The dames are beautiful, and gangsters with names like "Babyface" or "the Professor" look their parts, especially Lisa Hori-Garcia as the former. Alexaendrai Bond (Sister Jane) has a shiny doll face and a voice to match, using both to react in gossipy consternation to Lillian's fall from grace and the gangsterly goings-on. Jenny Debevec, who was terrifying and fiery as alpha-male Jack in Woman's Will's Lord of the Flies last year, is cool and menacing as Bill Cracker here. Director Erin Merritt and choreographer Rami Margron keep the pack moving around at a tight pace, creating contrasting tableaux of criminals and saints.
Some of the songs are longer and more repetitive than is necessary. The point is made the first few times the Fly sings "Shove tomorrow where you want"; by the fifth or six iteration it's time for more dancing. Much of the singing also gets lost. For example, while Lauren Curley (Dr. Nakamura) has a very expressive voice, her projection is not strong enough to overcome the live accompaniment. She's not alone; it's hard to make out the lyrics to several of the songs. Shelley Lynn Johnson as Sam Wurlitzer shows off her mad opera skills when she brings down the house in the third act's "Mandalay Song," and Lisa Jenai Hernandez gives Lillian a lovely, clear voice that wraps its hands around "The Sailor's Tango" and "Surabaya Johnny" and squeezes hard.
Woman's Will has chosen a fitting locale, a small room off Luka's Taproom and Lounge in downtown Oakland. It's a good place to re-create Weimar-era theater, although audiences should aim for the seats in the middle, where the sightlines are better and it's easy to see Brechtian touches like the projected captions. But any seat is a good one if you're looking for screwball Brecht.
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