Tangled Jungle

Fog and steamy rain made downtown Houston look something like Gotham City late last week, an effect that was strangely appropriate for the Alley's season opener, In the Jungle of Cities. One of three plays that Bertolt Brecht set in Chicago, Jungle is a mythical representation of the town, where a Malaysian lumberman mixes with an employee of a lending library, and there's a port from which ships sail to Tahiti. Needless to say, Brecht never set foot in Chicago, and his depiction of the place is closer to Hong Kong than it is to the Illinois city. (There are brief moments of humor when the dialogue shows how unfamiliar Chicago was to Brecht. In a late scene on the shores of Lake Michigan, Brecht has a character fancy he hears "the crawfish mating.") But whether or not he had a gift for geographical accuracy, Brecht's artistry, and his argument for a return to the epic drama, shaped theater in the 20th century. For Brecht, theatrical stories were shaped in long arcs instead of linear scenes, and the audience was distanced from a character's plight in order to allow a more complex and, ideally, intellectual understanding of a play's action.

Jungle is one of Brecht's early plays, written during the years 1921-24 and influenced largely by Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel of the Chicago meatpacking industry, The Jungle. Brecht's Jungle follows the destruction of the Garga family and, more particularly, the struggle for control between the mysterious Malaysian Shlink and Joe Garga, the family's son. In 11 scenes, Brecht weaves a picture of a city shaped by gangster ethics, socialist politics and despair. But the true tension in the elliptical work is the mental wrestling match between Garga and Shlink. In the play's first scene, Shlink humiliates Garga, and in the second, he gives Garga his prosperous lumber business -- a move motivated by Shlink's desire to see Garga fail utterly. The rest of the play drives toward that end.

Brechtian theater requires coordinating various production elements so that they inform the story, the idea being that a single element such as lighting or music can bring greater understanding instead of just helping the narrative glide along. Unfortunately, such well-tailored elements don't surface in this Alley production. What the audience gets instead is an orgy of sensual elements: German graffiti scrawled across the back walls; a set lit from above with Christmas bulbs and below with blue neon; sound effects that range from dripping faucets to blowing wind; a live jazz band playing from an elevated platform; a large square panel of the set that rises to and lowers from the ceiling.

With the exception of the jazz band, these elements distract the audience from focusing on the struggle between Garga and Shlink. The busyness of the lights and the exotic set pulls the audience's focus to the ancillary characters, petty thugs and whores who parade around the Neuhaus Arena Stage in a variety of costuming and makeup. Two Salvation Army girls gone wrong, played by Tricia Cox and Shelley Calene, show up in no less than four elaborate costumes and coordinating fright wigs. Their presence in the play should be relegated to the sidelines, but instead they writhe around in crucial scenes like absurd centerpieces.

While the supporting cast often drives this production close to -- and on occasion over -- the brink of spectacle, John Feltch plays a wry and desperate Garga. When asked by Shlink what he expects from life, Garga replies, "I expect more from life than to wear out my shoes kicking you." When Feltch is given the opportunity to work at the play's core -- the deadly fascination Garga has with his own ruin -- the production is lifted above its junky, overprocessed set. As Shlink, a man who's handed the poor Garga his fortune and humbly walked away (while at the same time undermining Garga's relationship with his family), James Black is wicked and calm, though his decision to stumble into Tarantino territory by holding a gun sideways a la Reservoir Dogs is strange indeed, and departs from the play in a way that doesn't serve the art or the production.

In many ways, what the Alley's production of Jungle suffers from is a preoccupation with looking contemporary. It's ironic then that the attempts to render Brecht hip are what fail the play. The Chicago the playwright drew is a city of alienation, as Shlink points out with the line, "If you cramp a ship full to bursting with human bodies, they'll all freeze with loneliness." Brecht strove for meatiness and entertainment in the same package. It would have been refreshing if director Gregory Boyd had attempted to reach beyond Brechtian theater in search of substance instead of simply dressing up his actors in outlandish costumes, propelling them onto a junk heap of a set and leaving them to bump around in the humor and grace of Brecht's language.

Despite the large amount of attention lathered on playwrights, such as David Mamet, who write in the dialect of the street, there is a palpable yearning among theater audiences for a return to graceful language. Too often, though, when a play is fortunate enough to express its story eloquently, the story fails to rise to the level of riveting entertainment. The exception is the work of Tom Stoppard, the British playwright who's more likely to dabble with the dialogue of Derrida than he is with that of Downtown Julie Brown. In his latest comedy, Arcadia, which is making its Houston debut at Main Street Theater, Stoppard weaves modern scholarship and higher math into a satisfying combination. Under the artistic direction of Becky Udden, Main Street has proven to be the kind of small theater that always tries hard -- and with its production of Arcadia, Main Street hits the mark with a comic, lively show.

Stoppard's play is split between two worlds: early 19th-century England and contemporary England. The catch is that both worlds are contained in the same house, the Coverly estate in Derbyshire. The historical half of the story, set on the cusp of an age in which scholars embraced science as ardently as they did poetry, opens with an inquisitive 13-year-old, Thomasina Coverly, in the midst of studying Newton's laws, geometry and portrait sketching. Thomasina's tutor, Septimus Hodge, is a personal friend of Lord Byron. (Yes, that Lord Byron.)

As played by Shannon Emerick, Thomasina is a charming blend of early teenage innocence and sharp wit. When her tutor tells her that a carnal embrace is when a person hugs a side of beef, she doesn't quite believe him, but waits until the study is full of people before calling him on the point. Aside from clever definitions, Arcadia is a play about leaps of faith in scholarly pursuits. Thomasina ardently believes that it's possible to algebraically graph a leaf, an idea that comes about 70 years before there was the equipment possible to complete such a task. That sort of conflict, the power of the mind versus the limits of knowledge, is what drives Arcadia. With Thomasina and her tutor, Stoppard creates the source material that his contemporary set of characters must sift through. In the alternating scenes that jump between the centuries, Stoppard's contemporary characters cloud their pursuit of knowledge with careerism and pettiness, while Thomasina and her tutor are bound by time and social convention. The contemporary characters are, however, equally amusing in their modern neuroses: Hannah Jarvis, a crusty landscape and literature scholar whose fault is her seriousness; Bernard Nightingale, a pompous professor who's out to publish a juicy revelation about Byron, regardless of its truth; and the lamenting biologist Valentine Coverly, whose house and its history is the source of all the scholarly turmoil.

The success of Main Street's production lies in its graceful and well-tuned timing, especially in the terse interaction between Claire Hart-Palumbo as Jarvis and Bryan Bounds as Nightingale. The two cleverly argue about literature, Bounds nailing his character with the line, "I don't like giving credit where credit is due," and Jarvis finally realizing that beyond the quest for publication, it is "wanting to know that makes us matter." There are occasional weak spots, particularly when the uninspired Rob de los Reyes, playing Septimus, realizes that his student's mental prowess exceeds his own, and an inexplicable burst of Muzak heard during the second act. But aside from these few stumbles, there is much to admire in this charming production, especially Main Street's ability to make a play about math and science entertaining, and Udden's ability to direct work that moves fluidly from one century to the next.

In the Jungle of Cities plays through October 6 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue, 228-9341.

Arcadia plays through October 20 at Main Street Theater at Chelsea Market, 4617 Montrose, 524-6706.