June 16-July 7
KPBS AIRDATE: June 26, 1991
Prepare for the assault. Sledgehammer Theatre is back — with a vengeance. San Diego’s only real fringe theatre, which has built its reputation on the bizarre, outrageous and the outré is back at the Sixth Avenue Playhouse. And it’s a double-barreled assault — first, on the audience, and second, on this early Brecht play, “Drums in the Night.”
It’s a sensory blitzkrieg. For more than three hours, every sense is bombarded. We are barraged with interminably annoying, loud and repetitive sounds, bright lights aimed in our faces while dark, brutal, sexual images crowd the stage. There’s even olfactory overload — from smelly cigars. To complete the sensory analogy, the production is tasteless and far from touching.
And where is Brecht through all this? Barely recognizable. Buried in the debris — more like detritus — that is Scott Feldsher’s excess of avant-garde. There is far more form than content here. One shtick or concept is heaped on top of another, until it’s a mass of conflicting images and ideas, with no apparent point. We can scarcely discern any plot.
There was precious little to begin with in this first of Brecht’s plays to be performed, a lesser piece that earned him the coveted Kleist Prize for the most promising young dramatist of 1922. Critical response was initially mixed, however, with complaints that the play lacked unity, either thematic, stylistic or dramatic. Sledgehammer’s Feldsher seems to have taken those comments as the cornerstone of his production. In disunity, he must have thought, there is strength.
Brecht’s slender story line is a parody of a traditional German tale about a beleaguered, ghostly soldier who returns home to a faithless wife. Andreas Kragler had been reported dead four years ago; he spent the time as a prisoner of war in Africa. He re-emerges on the evening of his beloved’s engagement to a boorish bourgeois. Not only that, but she’s pregnant by the aptly-named Murk.
Brecht sprinkled the piece with vague political references, but they’re all lost here, and there’s precious little resonance for recent wars or current politics. It’s hard to hear or see exactly what’s going on up there, for all the noise, confusion, rainstorms, black and white projections, shooting of ear-splitting guns, incessant banging of cleavers and literal throwing of wet, balled-up newspapers at the audience. Why are they so hostile toward us? It’s WE who should be throwing things.
On the plus side, the performances are forceful, if not always clearly motivated. Bruce McKenzie, Sledgehammer’s wunderkind, gets to show off his wiry body and athletic agility as he hops around on one foot, the other tied up behind him with a peg leg strapped to the supposed stump. He is as violent and abusive as ever.
Susan Gelman, another Sledge regular, is strong, but, as always, second string. This company does not take kindly to women. But they give powerful support here, especially Rebecca Navaian Amoli and Dorrie Board. Todd O’Keefe is an omnipresent B.B., the controlling onstage playwright, magician, commentator and noodge.
The only really clear vision comes from the inventive production designer, Robert Brill, whose first minimalist scene-in-a-box is inspired, and whose later visions of seedy bars and war-torn streets are delightfully decadent. Dan Pea Hicks is a very creative sound-man, but he cranks up the volume and the weirdness to a feverish pitch with Sledgehammer — much more head-spinning than mind-blowing.
What can I say, Boys? Tone it down. Take a breath. Pause a beat. Go back to tossing innovative theater at us — not soggy, balled-up words devoid of meaning. For KPBS Radio, I’m Pat Launer.
©1991 Patté Productions Inc.