You've got to hand it to Dubya. By reviving class war in America, the president and his coterie of plutocrats have also revived a whole vein of great Marxist literature. Who thought twice about George Orwell or Bertolt Brecht when Bill Clinton was president? A few antiglobalization agitpunks maybe, and that's about it. But now the poor are subsidizing Halliburton with their lives, medical care is a bourgeois luxury, and if no child gets left behind it's only because he's being tried as an adult. Consequently there's a 1984 at Lookingglass Theatre, an Animal Farm at Bailiwick Repertory, and the Strawdog Theatre Company is performing a wildly energetic version of Brecht's proletarian comedy, Puntila and His Man Matti.
This may be the one good thing to come out of the Bush presidency. We can all stand to be reminded of what a crystalline thinker, writer, reporter, and provocateur Orwell was, turning vast geopolitical situations into point-blank metaphors. Or how nasty-funny Brecht can be with his knifelike fables. Most important, we can stand to be reminded of the simple, awful, suddenly-not-so-quaint fact at the heart of both men's writings--that, as Brecht put it, "The defeats and victories of the fellows at the top aren't always defeats and victories for the fellows at the bottom." No, and neither are the wars of the fellows at the top, nor their tax cuts, nor their interpretation of the American dream.
In a way Puntila is a less-than-perfect vehicle for a Bush-era lesson in class interest. The guy likes his pleasures too much, and he doesn't stay on message. A wealthy landowner with a prodigious thirst for all things alcoholic, Puntila slides into sentimental egalitarianism whenever he's had a few. The cruel and canny businessman starts acting like a hail-fellow peasant--outspoken in his umbrage at the upper classes, slobberingly friendly toward the same poor folks he's usually trying to cheat. He even sees through himself upon occasion. Bush may have been like this once, when he spent his time drinking hard and insulting his parents' friends. But now that he's all Calvinist probity and messianic happy-talk, he's much scarier than any backcountry feudalist could ever be. Puntila's way too human to reflect the current reality.
But he'll do. Wussy as he looks next to Bush, Puntila's not one to be trifled with--and his schizoid adventures give Brecht and Strawdog a great comic opportunity to show how privilege poisons every relationship. Sexual. Working. Even filial. Jolly drunk Puntila is no less a threat to his underlings than Puntila the sober tyrant, since his state of mind affects neither his fundamental supremacy nor their fundamental powerlessness. A peasant who forgets Puntila's true status--even when he's been invited to do so--must suffer the consequences. Though, of course, so must the peasant who doesn't.
Brecht's script is a breakneck series of set pieces illustrating this dialectic. Expansive Puntila hires, and mean-spirited Puntila fires. Good-time Puntila proposes marriage, and in the play's single most chilling scene, hard-hearted Puntila breaks off his engagements--all four of them.
Trying his best to hold on through it all is Matti, a canny servant in the commedia tradition. Played with amused calm by Tom Hickey, Matti pushes at first for the small, sly rewards sought by every lumpen conniver from Goldoni's Truffaldino to Sergeant Bilko. And we cheer him for simply keeping his feet, even when he becomes the target of some amorous slumming on the part of Puntila's daughter, Eva. (For a truly surreal contrast, compare Strindberg's Miss Julie.) But this is a Brecht play. At a certain point Puntila's picaresque becomes Matti's journey of discovery, and a proto-Marxist is born.
Strawdog has borrowed House Theatre's Nathan Allen to direct, with happy results. He brings huge dollops of the increasingly famous House energy and smarts to this show: this is echt Brecht, with none of the deadly earnestness that kills even the singing in so many productions. Kevin O'Donnell's music and Tommy Rapley's choreography well up from the core of the action rather than putting the brakes on it. Yet Brecht's consciousness-raising distance is preserved, and by the simplest of strategies: Strawdog simply tells the story to us, the audience, with full-out commitment, a ruthless sense of humor, and even something like wonder now and then. Engaged alienation, as it were.
Carmine Grisolia overdoes the engagement, however. His Puntila starts out so far over-the-top that the role takes on a barking sort of monotony. I spent a good part of the evening just worrying about what Grisolia was doing to his larynx. Kat McDonnell, meanwhile, makes a classic Brechtian study of Eva, constantly subverting our certainties about who she is and where she stands in the play's political economy. McDonnell's even better in the smaller role of a milkmaid, her open-faced comic style recalling a Preston Sturges film.
Joey Steakley projects pure androgyny as the rich twit Eva's been contracted to marry. I long to see him in a stage version of Virginia Woolf's Orlando, even if that means bending the genders in her story in novel ways. Allison Greaves dresses him and everyone else in the cast with absolute precision. Tom Burch's jungle gym set not only conveys the terrain of Matti's journey but captures the boisterous spirit with which Strawdog undertakes it.
Puntila and His Man Matti
When Through 12/4: Fri-Sat 8PM, Sun 7 PM
Where Strawdog Theatre Company, 3829 N. Broadway