Any company which can expend such skills and tender, loving care on "The Jungle of the Cities" as ASTA is doing on this early Brecht drama commands awe if not advocacy.
Under Jay allison's firm direction, in a most ingenious set by Russell Metheny and with an imaginative trio of musicians, a capable cast is performing the play which even Martin Esslin, the Brechtian high priest, describes as "one of his most difficult." Performances are Thursdays through Sundays at 8 p.m. at 612 12th St. NW, with reservations at 628-8368. For students of Brecht, this is a signal to go.
Brecht's intention was "to write a play about a fight without a motive. The public is especially asked not to wrack its brains about the motives of the wrestling match it is about to watch but to savor it like a sporting contest and to concentrate on the style of the opponents."
Around this period, Brecht also wrote that "nobody has yet described the big city as a jungle." Perhaps in Augsburg, he might not have read Frank Norris or Charles Norris or Ida Tarbell or Upton Sinclair or Sinclair Lewis or Theodore Dreiser, but surely Charles Dickens or Emile Zola must have penetrated. So much for fresh territory. Brecht was adroit at saying things so forcefully that inaccuracies didn't show.
Asking an audience not to look for motives in a play is equally evasive. George is a library clerk to whom a Malayan turns over his valuable Chicago lumber mill. The Malayan, C. Shlink, insists that this is entirely a philosophical testing of the young man. Is that not also a motive? That motives must make at least a modicum of sense is the major challenge for any playwright. To avoid motive is to transfer responsibility for a play from writer to audience. What a neat out for a writer who refuses to be troubled with detail!
To say this about the sainted Brecht betrays, I allow, hopelessly middleclass standards but if "most difficult" is the best Esslin can do, this does not mean one disrespects "The Caucasian Chalk Circle," "Mother Courage," "The Threepenny Opera" or "Galileo." "Baal," "Puntilla" and "Man Is Man" are as solemnly rated as "Jungle."
Allison's use of the theater's long, narrow space is ingenious, as are the devices Metheny uses for the 11 scenes. Two very good actors, Cotter Smith, as George, and Gahan Hammer, as Shlink, are admirable as the tough opposites in this firmly drilled cast, and the music of Larry Massett, Jess Boggs and Larry McCurdy adds considerably to the strong production values.