Lost in the Jungle
Bertolt Brecht's In the Jungle of Cities has always been rather an endurance match. In its 1922 premiere run in Munich, the cryptic play was panned, closed after six performances and was such a thoroughgoing failure that the theater's artistic advisor was canned. Although one prominent critic wrote that Jungle "changed Germany's literary complexion overnight," he did warn that "to anyone insensitive to its language, the play must appear a muddle."
That may be one reason why, when present day theatergoers think of Brecht, they think of familiar works such as The Threepenny Opera. But Infernal Bridegroom Productions -- a sometime assemblage of actors drawn mainly from the alternative music scene who premiered last year with a play written by one of their own -- decided to give Jungle a chance. Unfortunately, as directed by Jason Nodler, the execution does little to untangle Brecht's esoteric verbiage. Indeed, at an early performance, Nodler evinced surprise that a reviewer had stayed through to the very end. "Oh, we don't really expect anyone to stay after intermission," he said mildly. (Although the play was scheduled to close August 6, Nodler says the run will be extended through August 20.)
Still, you have to give him credit for tackling what is not an easy play. Jungle is a thick, meandering work engaged in the sort of metaphysical abstruseness that is done best -- and enjoyed most -- by revolutionary youth. For others, it may not be worth the trouble. Abstract existential ranting has to be your cup of tea, and it's brewed pretty strong here. Written by Brecht in 1922, when he was only 24 and caught up in Marxist enthusiasms, Jungle is a young, heady work. "I made concoctions of words like strong drinks," Brecht wrote of the play, looking back when he was an older man, "entire scenes out of words whose texture and color were specifically designed to make an impression on the senses." If the basis of drama is conflict, Brecht presents his as bare-boned as they come. Set in a Chicago that Brecht had yet to visit, Jungle is about a fight -- a "war of annihilation" -- pure, simple and rather abstract.
Brecht was a boxing fan when he wrote Jungle, and Infernal Bridegroom's set designer Mike Scranton has reflected that in the earthy boxing-ring set he created out of the raw Commerce Street Artists Warehouse. The play commences with a grating burst of bell, signaling a boxing match in hell. For no given reason, Shlink, a Chinese lumber-company magnate, engages the young, impoverished clerk Garga in a contest of philosophical and class-struggle dimensions. He saunters into the shop where Garga works one day and confronts him in rather puzzling ways (offering him money for his opinions, for example), confrontations to which Garga responds with rather inexplicable heat. And the fight is on. The two are embraced in this surreal combat like lovers. "In my dreams, I call him my Infernal Bridegroom" Garga says of Shlink. Both combatants consort with women, but only as a means to get at each other, like a Dangerous Liaisons of the existentialist set.
Garga is played by Jim Rizkalla, who gives the clerk a uniform, belligerent arrogance that makes him distant and unapproachable. It's impossible to feel for him, despite his Kafkaesque plight of arbitrary persecution by the universe in the form of Shlink. It's Shlink, as portrayed by Andy Nelson, who has the more innate fascination. Nelson imbues his character with an unctuous, evil presence. His humility is mocking, his authority bland and chilling. However, with him, as with Rizkalla's Garga, there's no chink in the armor that lets us sense the urgency of this surreally epic battle. We should have doubts about his deviousness, almost believe his sincerity. Always supercilious and smilingly ahead of the game, Nelson makes Shlink more like the devil himself than a man waging a metaphysical battle of the soul, as Shlink describes his contest with Garga.
Tamarie Cooper does a bright turn as Garga's dumb-virgin-turned-jaded-whore sister. She's an adept comedienne, playing with the parody of the role. Likewise, Jeanne Harris is convincingly dissolute as Garga's fallen mistress. Greg Wood, Troy Schulze and Dewitt Graink as Shlink's henchmen are sufficiently slimy lowlifes. The scenes with Garga's parents (Richard Lyders and Vicki Weathersby) drag, but apparently the two actors were brought in late in the game as emergency replacements.
In the program notes for a Heidelberg production of Jungle, Brecht wrote that the play Òhas turned out to be such a difficult proposition for the audience that only the most courageous theaters have been prepared to tackle it. Indeed nobody should be surprised if the audience rejects the play entirely." I'm with the German audiences. Although the play and production have an edgy intellectual glamour, it all starts to become tedious, and by intermission, I longed to hit the road.
Although the night I attended much of the audience did make it to the end, the bulk of them seemed to be friends of the cast and production crew. Still, the Infernal Bridegroom folks have figured out a way to make the difficult work of this Brecht play enjoyable on more than a purely intellectual level. Throughout the performance, beer is sold to the audience at the "Chinese bar" on stage. After intermission, in a scene at the bar, most of the cast also began drinking the keg beer. In the muggy, un-air-conditioned, uncomfortable warehouse space, sitting through the increasingly murky Jungle air, the cold beers were indeed a relief.
Infernal Bridegroom Productions' In the Jungle of Cities plays at the Commerce Street Artists Warehouse, 2315 Commerce, 521-0967. Call for dates and times.
Get the Theater and Arts Newsletter
Exclusive discounts and announcements to Houston theater shows and art events