SCR’s Segerstrom season opener by Bertolt Brecht has a fresh, unique look and style that makes it seem the product of a groundbreaking, unknown experimental theater. The sustained, unified vision of helmer Kate Whoriskey, reflected in music choice and costume and scenic design, gives the show an “auteur” quality, insuring the special pleasure that comes when viewers feel the security of being in one creator’s strong, capable hands.
The first sense of comfort is Whoriskey’s choice of balladeer, Daniel Breaker, a singer-actor who delivers colorful narrative songs. Sailing above a wave of intense, varied melodies by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen, Breaker’s rich voice and humorous approach open the yarn on an appropriately light “once upon a time” note and supply a solid base that blends folk tale sweetness with dark reality.
Set pieces by Walt Spangler, such as an aluminum foil church, blue plastic tarp to represent a river and tattered white paper curtains, have a striking look of impermanence, suggesting a lack of stability and political conditions that never stop fluctuating between war and peace.
At the center of these inspired visuals are marching soldiers in Ilona Somogyi’s black flak jackets, helmets and shin guards. The soldiers create an alarming picture of military menace, their boots pounding percussively to choreographer Randy Duncan’s snappily strident, threatening rhythms.
Set in war-ravaged Grusinia, in the Caucasus border region between Russia and Persia, Brecht’s story contrasts servant Grusha (Katrina Lenk) with Natella (Nina Hellman), a selfish, materialistic governor’s wife. When their safety is threatened by murderous “Ironshirts,” Natella flees, abandoning her infant son.
Although more than 40 characters flood the stage, Whoriskey keeps the action firmly focused on Grusha’s struggles. Lenk movingly builds Grusha’s inner change, from someone at first concerned simply with saving Natella’s child, to a woman who comes to see herself as his mother.
As Grusha’s journey excitingly charts her race from potential betrayers, one amazingly staged scene has her crossing mountains, balancing like a tightrope walker while stepping from the shoulder of one cast member to the palm of another.
She tears free of a vicious corporal (potent William Seymour), finally reaching her brother, Lavrenti (Ogie Zulueta) who takes her in. Arrangements are completed for her to marry dying Yussup (Matt D’Amico), in order to make the baby appear legitimate. But Yussup, it develops, was only pretending to be ill to avoid military service, and now wants his wife to do his bidding.
“Scrub my back,” he barks, in one of the evening’s memorable episodes, and although Yussup is a relatively minor part, D’Amico’s portrayal is a masterful personification of demanding men who view women only as bedmates and slaves for their immediate gratification.
The other side of the coin is Simon, Grusha’s true love — beautifully played by Alex Mendoza.
There also are flavorful portrayals by Assaf Cohen, Richard Doyle, Adriana Sevan, Lynn Milgrim and Hal Landon Jr., all assuming various roles.
A problematic and verbose aspect of Brecht’s structure is revealed when he introduces Azdak (Frank Wood), a poverty-stricken drunk whose erratic, silver-tongued philosophizing prompts townspeople to elect him judge. Azdak’s history takes too long to unravel, and Grusha’s absence causes impatience to set in. Wood (a Tony winner for “Sideman”) compensates by bringing roaring comic vigor and vitality to his role.
Filled with biblical echoes, the finale presents a faceoff between Grusha and Natella, who wants her son back so she can reclaim her lost wealth and property. Azdak’s solution is to have a circle drawn; each competing mother will pull the child, and the one powerful enough to yank him to her side is the victor. There’s great satisfaction in Lenk’s joy at the outcome, and the final twist provides a perfect fairytale ending.