Dancing in the Spider's Web

West Bay opera presents Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny
Music by Kurt Weill, book by Bertolt Brecht
May 26 2000, Lucy Stern Theater, Palo Alto, CA

The house is approximately 20 rows of about 20 seats across, a stage holding 20 adults and a handkerchief. Lucy Stern is a "Charming" mission-style building, experiencing some remodeling. Lindy Peterson volunteered and served on the board many years ago; she says it was founded by Henry and Maria Holt, who invited serious opera lovers to their home to sing. This continued in various homes until the small group to send out letters soliciting donations that allowed creation of the company. So the Guild preceeded the company. The program says this is their 44th season.

Two men involved have also been stage directors for Opera Idaho; Ross Halper, a lead tenor here, and Jonathan Field, stage director.

We have three youths, two boys and a girl, to Tom's left, three or four more of the same party behind me. High school age? Dressed in black, male and female, the females with drop-dead gowns and very pale makeup. Loud and giggly together, rather surly toward us.

Narrator and two dancers enter in front of the curtain. With vaudevillian painted-face style, Uncle Sam sequined costume, the narrator announces that 3 desperadoes have reached the end of their line.

Stage set: cloth drop over a raked stage blends backdrop into floor. Painted on it: a highway from far horizon into the audience, dead center, so that all action takes place on the road. It's any road and every road. To stage right is the back end of an ancient, stalled touring car. Suggestion of an unpainted shack on stage left. Enter 3 down-at-luck petty criminals, Trinity Moses, Leona Begbick, Fatty the bookkeeper; they sing of how there's nowhere to go so they'll start their own town here, named by Ms. B as Mahagonny, a spider's web in which to catch victims. Her plan is soon in action. Jenny and the 'girls' enter as a chorus line to sing "Moon of Alabama... we lost our dear old mama... we must have whiskey or we die." They are escapees from farm chores still in their cotton print wash dresses. Not quite desperate, but thirsty.

Next is the men's chorus in city-scape 'hats,' the suckers being seduced by Fatty and Trinity. F & T weave between the stiff chorus touting their town as an escape from this rotten world.

Curtain closes and out trot 4 men in working clothes, with cliche bandana-bags on sticks. They prance and sing in barbershop harmony about their need for recreation after 7 years of felling trees together in Alaska. Jimmy sings his theme song of how those who want to be walked over can lay down and be victims but he plans to stand up and kick. Leona and her 2 cronies meet the working stiffs, then call in the chorus of girls who wheel in seated in office chairs, each holding a cardboard cutout of bare breasts and belly in front of their workaday dresses. It's comic, over-obvious and effective; three men climb aboard. Jimmy the hero picks the least naked girl, Jenny as his paid partner; the others clear off so Jenny and Jimmy can have a tender duet asking each other what they want. She's willing to go without undies.

When the curtain opens next, power poles loom up in front of the rotted billboard that once stood beside the road. Tables are set up for a bar. The wicked trio consults: if they don't fleece these lumberjacks they are lost! Jimmy sings of how something is missing but he doesn't know what. No work, so he's sick of nothing. His buddies cajole- there's fishing, looking out across at the sunset. What more does he want? Jimmy pulls out a knife, threatens the piano player when he's told there's no happy songs tonight, that's a rule. The possibility of violence gets everyone happily excited. This is interrupted by a hurricane warning. Male chorus pulls out a flurry of black umbrellas for comic (symbolic?) protection; others build a barrier of chairs and tables. Jimmy sits alone, contemptuous, building a house of dollar bills on his table top.

The hurricane (represented as dancers in dirty gray fluff tied to their cabaret costumes plus a cookie cast on the curtain next to a cookie of the town of Mahagonny) dances up, flirts, dances away. The dancers direct their attention to the audience as they kick and jiggle their canes, in a broad wink that distracts from what is to follow, a rapid glitzing of the town. Act II begins with the news that the hurricane crushed one town, but then passes by Mahagonny without doing damage. Now there's a trailer, Begbick Motel, with a big neon cowgirl kicking her leg.

There's another neon sign, "whiskey 24 hours a day," in this town of pleasure: the chorus sings of how you can indulge any appetite as a table is pushed out with one of the lumberjacks seated at a Las Vegas style buffet, stuffing his face until he dies and the table is pushed back off stage. The men in line for a throw at the prostitutes at the motel sing, "fellows, move faster, the Harvest moon is sinking." Ms. B sings, "cash alone won't breed passion." Imaginations need stimulation and that's forthcoming: more neon, more promises up in lights, the 'girls' now in showgirl costumes. Anticipation is important; money is spent in that extended moment between desire and opportunity.

A boxing match has been arranged between Trinity Moses, who fights dirty, and one of the loggers, who plays on Jimmy's friendship. Jimmy bets the farm; Trinity kills Alaska Wolf Joe, and Jimmy orders drinks for the house, pulls down a curtain to be the mast for the boat they ride out of town, to Alaska and meaningful labor once again. Everyone joins the fantasy but Jimmy doesn't have cash to pay for his drinks.

Court is held. A truly vicious-looking male in black leather jacket, Dude, bribes the court and gets let off. Jimmy gets the electric chair for 3 bottles of whiskey and unauthorized use of Leona's curtain. Jenny sings Jimmy's song of how she'd rather kick, counting the cash in her bosom which she refuses to spend on saving Jimmy. He's cooked. The jury of his drinking buddies, reflecting Jimmy in their face masks, sing of how he taught them how to live, he was their hero, but since he's run out of money he's going down. As Jimmy dies, he's given a Mickey Mouse doll for comfort. Ronald McDonald and a giant (Easter? Bugs?) bunny character bounce in, directing their waves at the audience. The criminals in charge have decided to make themselves family friendly. It's a classic Brechtian move. Just as the audience is repelled by the travesty of justice, turning away and resisting seeing parallels with present day life, the costumed characters with their commercial friendliness, their familiarity, hook us.

The music, with the cold self-interest of the songs of each character, the deliberate self-aggrandizement and corruption of the town organizers, their poisonous effect on everyone around them, the self-destructive behavior of the two most sympathetic characters, is relieved by comic business. Jenny's lovely soprano voice, her devotion to Jimmy which doesn't extend to saving his life, are clearly the consequences of capitalism, of life lived for pleasures that money can buy. The power of these moments could have been expanded, I believe, if the chorus of females could have been given a human reaction, if we could have seen them buying into the project as eagerly as the men lined up, playing air guitar as they awaited their turn with the girls. I would have had them offer parts of their costume or anatomy for celebrity signatures by clown Ronald McDonald if I had been staging. They could have been surrogates for the audience, gaga in their skimpies.

Some of the story is still odd to me. Why did Magonny have a rule against singing happy songs? Seems like an inside joke about German cabaret taste in the 20's, while staging successfully draws a connection between the opera's theme and our own post-ideal age, the Las Vegazation of the world.

Jeanette Ross     drjross@pobox.com


Monday, 29-May-2000 08:04:00 MDT