So Mahagonny, despite blurbs from the L.A. Opera that it has been reviewed as “red-hot” and “like Las Vegas on steroids,” was a bore. (I reiterate that all participants were excellent; the piece itself is what sunk them.) What does that have to do with us?
I was struck by the fact that Mahagonny was originally a collection of poems by Bertolt Brecht, which were then set to music by Kurt Weill, and then wrestled by the two into a full scale performance piece.
On one front, John’s directorial choice to freeze the stage picture most of the time, I think we’re free and clear. His deliberate, static staging was supposed to appear monolithic, I guess; all these free spirits who were living with abandon in Mahagonny were in fact straight-jacketed by their own choices, maybe? Perhaps it gave a different impression from the orchestra section. In the balcony, it was stifling. (General note to directors: check your blocking from the balcony. It looks different from up there.)
At any rate, I don’t think we have that problem. Yet. Of course, we haven’t put any of our three pieces on their feet yet, but at the moment it looks as if we have all three of them moving throughout.
A second issue was that the characters were internally inconsistent. Was Lumberjack Jim an innocent or a debauchée? Did he have hope for the future or did he want, Samson-like, to pull it all down around their ears?
Again, we don’t have that problem. The rabbit is always officious, the tiger is always sweet-natured, the King of Cats is always pompously silly.
However, I think we will have to be careful with our decision to allow each piece to have its own universe, its own mise en scene. It may sound kicky for us to allow the tiger to be a human in “Sun & Moon Circus,” a puppet in “Milky Way,” and a Chinese dragon in some other piece, but we will need to be thoughtful about how the audience will tie these together. (I’m not saying we shouldn’t do it, just be deliberate.)
Finally, like William Blake, Mahagonny didn’t have a plot so much as an aggregate of incidents. I think that this was a problem for Mahagonny because they didn’t add up and in fact fought against being stitched together by the mind into a whole. Of course, that may have been deliberate on Brecht’s part, but it’s not something I would advise for any theatre practitioner.
William Blake is even less plot oriented than Mahagonny, but this is probably to our advantage. Because there’s no seeming build-up (the city gets larger, Jim meets Jenny, the hurricane approaches), the Inn is freed from that audience expectation. Instead, we can afford to drift from one piece to the next, like a kaleidoscope. In fact, I think we are well-advised to avoid trying to piece together any kind of bridge or storyline to try to tie them all together in some kind of coherent beginning-middle-end “plot.”
And that’s what I learned from Bertolt Brecht last week.