Like an enormous pop-up book, the production design by famed illustrator and children’s book author Maurice Sendak takes three-dimensional form on the Berkeley Rep’s Roda Stage, bringing to life two mid-20th century Czech light operas adapted to English by playwright (and friend to Sendak) Tony Kushner, Comedy on the Bridge and Brundibar. Both are charming and witty, yet darkened by the ensuing tragedies of war and genocide that contribute their own ironic chiaroscuro and vanishing points.
Directed by the Rep’s artistic director, Tony Taccone, with the music conducted by Valerie Gebert (featuring members of the Berkeley Symphony), the two operettas are comedies of poor children banding together at the behest of friendly animals to defeat a bully, and of the perils and antics of an unlikely band of adults trapped between lines as a ceasefire ends and their exit visas are refused for entry or re-entry.
Comedy on the Bridge, based on a 19th-century play by Vaclav Kliment Klicpera with music by Bohuslav Martinu, is played first. Popelka (“Cinderella” in Czech, played and sung by Anjali Bhimani with tart charm) is the first to get stuck on the bridge between two sentries accoutered like toy soldiers, though brandishing automatic weapons with menace.
The others begin to stack up: first brewer Bedronyi (excellent Martin Vidnovic), then Popelka’s jealous boyfriend Sykos (Matt Farnsworth), followed by the brewer’s even more jealous wife Eva (Angelina Reaux, with brilliant voice and manner) and finally the schoolteacher, Professor Ucitelli (William Youmans, who displays some comic body language), who’s trying to get the answer to a riddle from Capt. Ladinsky (Henry DiGiovanni), who finally arrives in the gondola of a dirigible atop a column of clouds on a pedestal of churning waves with fish, and delivers the answer, with an irony that would give closure to Oedipus’ sphinx.
The cast sings and performs delightfully on Sendak’s bridge—at one point underpinned by enormous-eyed, big-footed fish, frustrated as they wait to eat a would-be jumper; at another, falling into jagged pieces with the shelling following the end of the truce. Martinu’s music is piquant and well supports the ridiculous action in the midst of cataclysm.
Brundibar is Czech for “bumblebee”—maybe from the humming of a hurdy-gurdy, for it’s the title character’s name, a leering, surly organ-grinder (played very effectively by Euan Morton) who professedly hates children, especially Pepicek (Aaron Simon Gross) and his little sister Aninku (Devynn Pedell), who come to beg on his turf for money to bring home milk and food for their ailing mother.
A bird, a cat and a dog, well-portrayed by the women of the first piece, and Geoff Hoyle, one of the sentries at the bridge, as the dog, help summon a crowd of children, who shame Brundibar and drive him away.
It’s a triumph, but Sendak, who has said that children’s courage comes from “enormous innocence to really not know how evil the world can be,” suggests “turn the page.” Brundibar adds his P.S. to the children’s song: “Our friends will make us strong. Bullies don’t give up completely. One departs. The next appears. And we shall meet again, my dears.”
Composer Hans Krasa, confined to the concentration camp at Terezin, performed Brundibar 55 times with casts of children held there, before he was transferred to Auschwitz, where he was killed in 1944. Among the many ironies is the exploitation of the shows by the Nazis to demonstrate to the world how well treated were the denizens of the “model ghetto.”
Adolf Hoffmeister’s libretto is full of both sophisticated irony and folk wisdom. Tony Kushner’s adaptation develops its own comic vocabulary, though sometimes comes up a little flat in rendering the subtler shades behind the innocence of a not-so-false naivete.
The unfolding of the story is marvelously depicted by Sendak’s unfolding town and background landscape, with a backdrop at one point of children riding blackbirds, which Sendak says are “both pro the kids and against the kids. Just like fate ... And also a blackbird is from my passion for Schubert songs and his blackbirds and his birds of doom or birds of good.”
Those who’ve been charmed, or who can be charmed, by Sendak’s books won’t be disappointed by the show at the Rep. It portrays both the humor and pathos in the little things of everyday, translated into fantasy and dream. It is told in a form which, like children’s books, is considered minor, light, but, as Sendak says of his own career, “I was gonna hide somewhere where nobody would find me and express myself entirely. I’m like a guerrilla warfarer in my best books.”
This by the same author/illustrator who also said, “You’re really fighting yourself all the way along the line. And I don’t know ... I never set out to write books for children.”
The Berkeley Repertory Theatre presents Comedy on the Bridge and Brundibar through Dec. 28. $15-$64. Roda Theatre, 2025 Addison St. 647-2949 or see www.berkleleyrep.org.
Berkeley Rep advises parents not to bring children age 7 or younger. |