Oh, don’t ask why

Bertolt Brecht’s Berlin

James Ellison as the carrier discussing which division of Halliburton gets what war spoils, in Bertolt Brecht’s <i>The Exception and the Rule.</i>

James Ellison as the carrier discussing which division of Halliburton gets what war spoils, in Bertolt Brecht’s The Exception and the Rule.

Rated 4.0

The world’s a disorganized, ambiguous, dangerous mess. A once-mighty economy is lurching. People grab at money while the little guy gets screwed. Soldiers are sent to overseas garrisons all over; new widows and suddenly childless mothers are jolted by bad news. And at a late-night cabaret in the nation’s capital, traditional morality is cast aside, and world-weary customers drink themselves numb, singing about lies and illusions.

It’s Bertolt Brecht’s Berlin, the current show at River Stage. Most of what’s on display dates from the early 1930s, and Brecht died in 1956, so draw whatever contemporary parallels you wish. Brecht, who loved to rock the boat and tinker with expectations, would have approved of present-day inferences.

Bertolt Brecht’s Berlin is actually a pair of complementary efforts. First comes Berlin Cabaret, directed by Bob Irvin and arranged mostly (but not entirely) around lyrics by Brecht and tunes by Kurt Weill. It’s got slinky outfits, skin, abundant sexual humor and lots of makeup for both genders. It’s frequently funny, with a desperate edge. Song titles include “It’s All a Swindle”; “Alabama Song,” a dissolute German jab at the Jewish-American blackface singer Al Jolson, with the famous line “Show me the way to the next whiskey bar / I tell you we must die”; and “Ballad of the Soldier’s Wife,” in which a series of garments are sent home by a soldier, ending with a black veil from a widow on the Russian front. Vocals range from acceptable to excellent. Standouts include Martha Omiyo Kight as a feisty, full-figured frau; Amanda Ditto as a sex kitten (legs!); and local theater vets Julie Anchor and Ken Figeroid in numerous roles.

After intermission, it’s The Exception and the Rule, a Brecht one-act, with music by Randolph Lowell Dreyfuss and direction by Frank Condon. It’s an experimental play, written when Brecht was blending his unique understanding of Western and Asian traditions in an effort to shake up both. It involves a Western businessman, determined to secure an oil deal in a distant desert land. It’s a race to get there first, so the hard-hearted businessman flogs a local coolie, singing in cynicism and triumph: “The strong man fights, and the sick man dies, and that’s a good thing!” It’s a wickedly funny clash of cultural values and class values, and also a cautionary tale about monetary Darwinism. Condon deliberately takes his performers over the top, including exchanges between the selfish entrepreneur (Andrew Hutchinson), the desert guide (Greg Jones) and the haplessly honest coolie (James Ellison), who’s inevitably victimized.

This is a valuable and timely show: funny, smart and seditious, entertaining and a smart kick in the pants. Numerous risks are undertaken, most with success. Condon and River Stage have set the standard again. This show is recommended.