German playwright Bertolt Brecht wrote four plays set in Chicago without ever having seen that city, instead drawing on the social criticism of novelists such as Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris and Upton Sinclair, along with the Hollywood images that make Al Capone our overseas ambassador to this day. Small wonder that the Hog Butcher To The World should come to symbolize the worst excesses of capitalism, with innocent laborers trapped beneath the heel of ruthless money-obsessed authority figures.
But the inequities of a century ago have given way to big corporations now making massive monetary contributions to charitable causes—which include the arts, let's not forget. And while one may argue that all this practice accomplishes is to allow the proletariat a greater participation in the exploitation, some modifications in the old stereotypes are in order for an American staging in 2001 of Saint Joan Of The Stockyards.
Adapter-director Stefan Brün savvily resolves these tensions by adhering to Brecht's precepts of what translates roughly as "alienation effect," presenting the play's arguments with an ironic edge that forces us to suspend easy judgments in evaluating their validity. Jenny Magnus' clarion voice and Gainsborough face lend an ambiguity to her Joan Dark that leads us to consider the inevitability of her martyrdom, while Jonathan Lavan portrays Pierpont Mauler as a success-weary magnate on the brink of reform—until public outcry demands restoration of the Bad Old System.
The repugnant side of industry is represented by his weasely assistant, played by Guy Massey as a villain more inept than malicious. The Fat Cats rendered by Fred Husar and Herb Metzler are likewise engaging, the latter recounting the details of the Stock Market's Collapse with all the pathos of a messenger in Greek tragedy. And though the framing device cited by Brün in his playbill notes ( something about a 1932 radio broadcast by a radical German theatre company ) is so minimal as to be inevident, but a number of multi-media devices—electronically distorted voice-overs, period photographs of Da Yards and video footage of generic populace projected onto a huge screen, poignant incidental music and atonal vocal anthems—also guard against propagandistic zeal.
In the end, according to Brecht and Brün, the source of all evil is not money, but poverty—for which no cure has been found. Prop Thtr doesn't propose to give us one, but it gets us thinking about the possibilities. And that's a start, isn't it?