HAPPY END Music and lyrics by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht Directed by Bill Glassco and Felix Mirbt
It all looks promising. Felix Mirbt’s entrancing puppets (15 in all) immediately conjure up the essence of the characters they portray: Bill Cracker is a paragon of menace in chains and black leather, while the warm heart beating under Salvation Army Lieutenant Lil Holiday’s severe blue tunic is reflected in her yearning sloe-eyed face. Arrayed in the background behind the puppet
manipulators are multicolored spotlights, an overhead projector and four vampish Cabaret singers thighing over drinks—no doubt about it, this exotic display at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre (co-producers Theatre Calgary and Vancouver East Cultural Centre will see it in the spring) leaves Punch and Judy far behind. The tale is solid musical fare: Lil and Bill fall in love, are ostracized by their respective puppet peers only to be reunited, one and all, under the banner of social betterment. How then, with all its promised and delivered pleasures, does this Happy End manage to remain only intermittently entertaining?
The problems start with the script. At first glance, replacing human actors with inanimate figures seems ideal for a Brecht play considering his concern that, if the audience identified too strongly with the emotional turmoil of an individual actor, the more important (from Brecht’s Marxist perspective) social contexts and issues would be ignored. Denying the audience personal identification through so-called “alienation” effects such as songs and commentary presents no difficulties if the story is powerful. But this Broadwaystyle adaptation isn’t and attention flags between Weill’s blockbuster numbers (superbly delivered by Sharry Flett, Charlotte Moore, Judith Orban and Francine Volker, who also read the parts). Although the scene is set in Chicago’s gangster era, time and place are “distanced” as well by intrusive modern colloquialisms (“Get your ass in gear”) and stage business (banana-seat bikes and spoofs of the CBC).
So we’re left with the puppets. Although the manipulators are models of deftness, it’s not always clear which puppet is talking. And since most of the characters are male and the singer/speakers are female, with limited ranges of masculine intonation, there’s little help here either. Directors Glassco and Mirbt have opted for realism in the puppets’ actions and achieve some fine effects: Lil trembling and collapsing in despair, Bill wiping away a begrudged tear. But generally the staging is uninventive and at times selfdefeating: why make audience involvement with the puppets doubly difficult by spotlighting the singers in a torchy number like Surabaya Johnny? Alienation as a theatrical technique readily degenerates into fragmentation without a vital unifying core, and this production is ultimately neither Brecht nor Weill, neither social comment nor satire. Its final socialist rallying cry, “Robbing a bank’s no crime compared to owning one,” rings hollow, an afterthought that speaks volumes about what could have been said before.
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