Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Saint Joan of the Stockyards


Saint Joan of the Stockyards
by Bertolt Brecht
presented by The Irondale Ensemble Project
directed by Peter Kleinert
translated by Paul Schmidt

We rarely get to see Brechtian theater, less often to see it done well. So much more terrific to find The Irondale Ensemble Project’s (off-off-Broadway, Brooklyn) excellent production of Brecht’s Saint Joan of the Stockyards

Director Peter Kleinert includes so many verfremdungseffekt techniques in this production that it reads like a catalogue from Brecht himself. There’s a whiteboard at the back of the stage area, and actors write on it as the play proceeds. Props and costumes are visible when not being used. The audience is often in the light.

Actors offer us bowls of soup, and at another point, business cards. Sometimes they talk directly to us, and they play a few scenes facing us. They squabble over a line. They stand on tables and they use half-masks. They talk to the techie and introduce the musician during the performance. The fist-fight is stylized as a cartoon.

An actress reads a scripted “improvisation” while the set is being changed (as we watch, of course). She even has an audience member read part of it.

There are a couple of passing contemporary allusions. One businessman is called a “one-percenter” and actors sing to the tune of America the Beautiful.

This is all precisely as Brecht intended, designed to distance us, to remind us constantly that we’re watching a play. It’s all meticulously executed.

Saint Joan of the Stockyards, which Brecht completed in 1931, concerns an idealistic young woman, Joan Dark, in an organization much like The Salvation Army, who takes it upon herself to remedy the plight of workers in the meat industry. She confronts the industry tycoon responsible for the exploitation of the industry labor, Pierpont Mauler, and the conflict becomes personal as well as political.

Brecht’s communism is center stage in this play. “The communists were right” one worker shouts to the others as they wave a red flag. Brecht’s didacticism is unrelenting. At one point, the entire cast repeats several times, emphatically in unison, “This is the world as it is.”

Irondale presents the play as Brecht wanted it – as a political event. After the show an actor invites us to talk with the cast in the cafĂ©, telling us that the play is only the beginning of the discussion.

The Irondale Ensemble’s work is great, but it can’t entirely overcome the failings of the script. Saint Joan is undeniably an important play, but it’s unwieldy. Its plot twists, its financial arguments, it economic discussions are too much for us to take in, and the play is cluttered.

Nonetheless, the argument is clear. “There is another side to it,” Mauler himself tells. He is no simple villain, but as complex as Shen Te in The Good Woman of Setzuan. “Will I be the boss or end up in the slaughterhouse myself?” he asks us.

Mr. Kleinert gives vitality to the Brechtian conventions that might seem forced  in the hands of another director. He expresses the Brechtian idiom eloquently. The play never rushes and never drags, and it repeatedly surprises us. His superb cast acts with earnest vitality.

Congratulations to The Irondale Ensemble for their brilliant work. It’s a triumph for representational acting, for political theater, and for the company.

Steve Capra
May 2015