KPBS AIRDATE: June 30, 2006
Love and greed. It’s a struggle to the death. In “Das Barbecü,” a wacky twist on Norse mythology, love conquers all. But a Brecht classic is considerably more sinister; in “Mother Courage,” war is hell, family is cherished, but making a buck trumps all.
Bertolt Brecht was one of the most influential dramatists of the 20th century; with his presentational style, emotional distancing, art as political activism, he was the harbinger of theatrical modernism. At the La Jolla Playhouse, his esthetic is impressively upheld, in director Lisa Peterson’s evocatively rundown circus atmosphere, punctuated by dark, satiric music-hall songs, composed in Kurt Weill style by Gina Leishman. The play is set during the 17th century Thirty Years’ War, but that barely matters; the whole point is that war is timeless, eternal and inevitable. An excellent ensemble of 12, including several UCSD theater grad students, morphs into multiple characters, climbs treacherous ladders, and scrawls informative or provocative graffiti on the black walls and floor, while enacting the dozen scenes with inspiring conviction and sly cynicism, though not as much humor as promised. At the center of the strong anti-war sentiment is Ivonne Call, unsentimental survivor, fiercely protective mother and stark symbol of crass materialism gone amok. It’s a long evening, but a potent, ultra-relevant cautionary tale that demands to be seen.
Far less gripping or significant is the mishmash musical adaptation of Wagner’s four-opera Ring Cycle, which has been turned into a yee-hah country Western Texas songfest called “Das Barbecü.” The brilliant original’s mythic proportions and operatic emotions have been mashed into guacamole. Except for the many convoluted plot twists and Norse-named characters, there’s no sign of Wagner here at all. Jim Luigs and Scott Warrender haven’t created a knee-slappin’ riff on the breathtaking music. It’s just down-home country, not that clever and pretty pedestrian. The onstage band is terrific, directed by piano-wiz Cris O’Bryon. If only the songs were as memorable. The highlight is a lovely ballad, “County Fair,” sung by gorgeous-voiced Jenn Grinels. The rest of the cast — cute-pert, sometimes shrill Rebecca Spear, belting Alison Bretches, deadpan Nick Spear and multi-talented funnyman Steve Anthony — do their darndest to make this half-baked hootenanny a hoot. The most compelling element is that this is the swansong of Miracle Theatre Productions in the Theatre in Old Town, after 14 years of presenting good-time, audience-friendly musicals. The State of California has put the theater up for bid, and producers Paula Kalustian and Jill Masaros found the far-reaching requirements too prohibitive. Here’s hoping they’ll find another venue soon, to continue to do what they typically do so well.
In the meantime, you have a dramatic choice: the supremely silly or the historically and politically significant.
©2006 Patté Productions Inc.