Walk into another room past the barroom, and one encounters another bar. Some shows have a play-within-a-play; Woman’s Will has staged Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill’s musical play Happy End in a bar-within-a-bar—at Luka’s Taproom in downtown Oakland.
Cabaret-style, anyway, for this piece from Berlin during the Weimar Republic of the ‘20s that, along with its more famous predecessor, Threepenny Opera, helped inspire Broadway’s ‘60s hit Cabaret. Set in a rathskellar, with only the crookedest of the shady encountering the cops and the Salvation Army in their chapel on Christmas Eve, Brecht’s wiseguys and Army of the Poor croon and belt out Kurt Weill tunes just as haunting and beautiful as the better-known “Mack The Knife”: “Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar),” with “That Old Bar In Bilbao” and the sublime ultimate love/hate song, “Surabaya Johnny.”
Brecht’s famous style is stylized and, true to their name, Woman’s Will has cast Happy End with all female actors, gangsters and Salvation Army soldiers alike. It’s staged as an unblinking but wide-eyed noir, with Brecht’s famous inter-titles projected on the wall like a silent film.
The mobsters are chafing at the bit; a rival gang just pulled off a heist “by boarding the train at Niagara Falls posing as a wedding party!” The crooked ensemble sings “Bilbao,” mixing the bittersweet with the piquant: “It was fantastic! Beyond belief! Now they cleaned it up and made it middle class.” Then a bell rings, a note sounds on a pitchpipe—and in troops the Salvation Army.
After much sermonizing and cross-banter, Sister Lillian (Lisa Jenai Hernandez as a vivacious ingenue) is left alone to “preach a sermon to one man, Bill Cracker” (Jenny Debevec). But after a few drinks she confides, “We have songs that don’t have anything to do with Jesus,” and sings a slangy shipwreck number that she’ll later have to repeat in rather different fashion to her superior, Major Stone (Scarlet Hepworth)—Walter Benjamin’s setpiece in discussing Brecht’s “distancing” effect through repetition under different conditions.
Brecht’s style is simple and not-so-simple, widely misunderstood by audience and performers alike, who stumble over the translated names of concepts like “Alienation” (or Strangeness or Distancing—the Soviet Constructivist literary notion of “Defamiliarization,” that shift in context to which Brecht owed so much, is maybe a better way to put it).
A storytelling technique is performed onstage, taking full advantage of modern self-conscious theatricality to interrupt and digress, “play counter to the changes” (as Coleman Hawkins summed up “the modern style” in jazz) and offer up to the audience a considered performance for their own consideration and wonder: Just exactly how did things get to be this way?
Much of Brecht is a process of discovery of the modern world through the mannerisms of his characters: “Of course the scientist couldn’t find God with his telescope,” exclaims Sister Lillian, “So I thought I’d bring in the miracle of radio!”
As director (and Woman’s Will founder—and Brecht devotee) Erin Merritt points out, Happy End isn’t the most political of Brecht’s plays. It’s from fairly early on, and its sardonic folk humor (as reflected in Michael Feingold’s English version) and almost Confucian saviness can be enjoyed by anyone who’ll stroll into the bar, relax and take it all in. It’s well worth whatever you pay on the sliding scale.
Woman’s Will presents Happy End at 7 p.m. Thrursdays and Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Sundays at Luka’s Taproom, 2221 Broadway, Oakland. The show also plays at 8 p.m. Fridays at Original Joe’s, 144 Taylor St., San Francisco.
$15-25. For more information see www.womanswill.org or call 420-0813.