As the opening salvo of its 25th anniversary season, the Actors’ Gang has restructured Bertolt Brecht’s declamatory epic theater as heightened drawing room comedy. Generally, that’s a good thing as helmer Jon Kellam wisely emphasizes zesty character interaction over political message in Finegan Kruckmeyer’s slang-heavy translation of Brecht’s early work “Drums in the Night.” Brecht’s skewering of the post World War I Weimer Republic’s handling of the short-lived proletariat revolt is rendered mere background noise to the comical shenanigans of the opportunistic Balicke family as they deal with a pregnant daughter, a skittish suitor and an unwelcome returning soldier.
Set in 1919 Berlin, the opening scene plays like 19th-century melodrama as ragingly materialistic munitions entrepreneur Mr. Balicke (Andrew E. Wheeler) and schnapps-loving Mrs. Balicke (Vanessa Mizzone) attempt to ramrod their lovelorn daughter Anna (Angela Berliner) into marrying ever-scheming young businessman Murk (Chris Schultz). The weepy Anna is still pining away for her soldier lover Kragler, who has been missing in Africa for over four years.
Wheeler, Mizzone and Schultz impressively play off each other with rapid-fire barrages of well-timed barbs and rejoinders, cajoling and commanding Anna to announce her engagement. What doesn’t work is Schultz’s jarringly out of place lip-syncing song-and-dance routine to the ’50s Frank Sinatra track “I’m Gonna Live ‘Til I Die.”
During this opening scene, Berliner’s decidedly understated Anna is not viable as the emotionally tortured daughter whose eventual acquiescence is due more to her delicate condition than her desire to wed. Berliner does elevate Anna’s mindset as she deals with the unplanned return of Kragler (Jarreth Merz), who has been rendered near catatonic after four years of being a prisoner of war.
When the action moves to the engagement party at the local Piccadilly Bar, the Balickes and Murk are hilariously vitriolic as they chew up the scenery in their efforts to get rid of Kragler. Complementing their shenanigans are pompous family friend Babusch (Jeff Branion), the ultra informative Waiter (George Ketsios) and waiflike prostitute Marie (Annemette Andersen), who knows Murk only too well.
As Kragler attempts to deal with this hostile bombardment, Merz offers a haunting portrayal of a near-dead soul that is slowly emerging, making an almost infant-like appraisal of these people he fought for so many years ago.
The second act takes to the streets of Berlin as Brecht utilizes the emotionally awakened Kragler as a lightning rod for his assessment of the 1919 people’s revolt, fermented by a communist party faction known as the Spartacist League. As Kragler and his new companion Marie stumble into a seedy gin joint, helmer Kellam orchestrates a captivating glimpse into a surreal family dynamic within a menagerie of Brechtian street folk. This evolves into a situation comedy from hell as proprietor Glubb (Ben Cain) and his gin-soaked compatriots attempt to seduce Kragler into becoming one of them, and to lead them in their revolt against the establishment.
A decided plus in this production is the compelling sound design of Gary DeMichele that constantly underscores the harrowing conditions in the world just outside the walls of our agenda-challenged protagonists.