On Nov. 13, Brock University Dramatic Arts students presented the first mainstage production of the year with the premiere of Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.
Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny is an operatic play written by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill that first premiered in 1930. Now, 85 years later, the play is still extremely relevant, thanks in part to the thoughtful and tireless adaptation of the play by DART’s directors and organizers. Putting on a mainstage production is not an easy task, and it took a tremendous amount of effort and collaboration throughout Brock’s Dramatic Arts Department (DART).
“I am so impressed with the amount of work and dedication that the cast and crew has put into this show. It was a huge undertaking to take on a musical and a show with this large of a cast. We have been so lucky to have a cast with such a great group dynamic and a crew that is willing to make so many last minute changes as things come up. I wouldn’t have wanted to work with anyone else,” said Elizabeth Amos, assistant director of Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny and fourth-year DART student. There is a large musical element of the show which isn’t typical in this department. It’s been an exciting endeavour for us.”
Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, like many other scripts selected for the mainstage treatment in years past is far from straight-forward. While this means it’s a difficult process, it also means that there is a lot of space for creativity.
“You can’t tackle [a] Brecht [play] the same way in which you might a contemporary play. The Brechtian model is very much different and must be handled in a different way but it has been a fun challenge,” said Mark Harrigan, who plays Alaska Wolf Joe in the production. “It’s been a way for me to expand my horizons as an actor and see how to participate in a different way within the script. The music has also been a challenge because it’s operatic and while some of us may not be operatically inclined, the training has been good enough that we have been able to at least meet that calibre. We’re able to give it our best shot and I think that we do it very well.”
Within minutes of the play’s opening, audiences will see the similarities between the fictional city of Mahagonny and real world Las Vegas, which establishes an extremely interesting setting for the play.
The play follows Leokadja Begbick and her accomplices as they build a city called “Mahagonny” outside of the laws of normal society – a place where everything goes.
“The play begins with the founding of Mahagonny, and we follow it until the city meets a period of disenchantment and civil unrest,” said Amos.
Even for those who’ve seen the play before, Brock’s rendition is a unique portrayal making use of a 1950s style to modernize Mahagonny for today’s audiences. The original script is set after the first World War, but this adaptation manages to maintain a lot of the core themes and context of consumerism and “carpe diem” reckless abandon.
“Setting the play in the 50s worked quite well,” said Amos. “We use the same dialogue as the original, but the creative elements, like the costuming and the hairstyling and props, brings it to life. We wanted to set it in a time before modern technology and electronic communication because those things would change a lot about how the City of Mahagonny advertised itself. We wanted to set it before mass online communication.”
Despite the change in setting, the cast believes that Brecht himself would be happy with their adaptation, as it has stayed relatively true to the source material.
“The original operatic production had an undertone of commentary about the upper class because opera is seen as a high art,” said Amos. “This production is grittier than the original. The music has been stripped down to more dramatic elements to serve as a better vehicle for the text. It think Brecht would be quite interested to see our production but also very interested to see that, while it was relevant and lived well in the time that he wrote it, it is also extremely relevant to today’s society as well as to the late 50s and early 60s time period that we’ve set it in. I think he would be disheartened to see that the same issues that he was struggling against are still very present and prominent in our society today.”
The social commentary isn’t just codexed within the plot and script, however, the play’s dramatic staging even has a deeply “meta” element.
“Audiences will notice that there are different scenic elements. We have lighting that is there for the audience to see much like the band which isn’t hidden backstage but is actually on stage for the audience to see,” said Harrigan. “You can see actors walking backstage. We want to draw attention to the fact that the audience is watching a show. I think it’s an interesting dramatic convention.”
The show is the culmination of the DART program this year and has even invited back DART alumni to perform.
If that’s not enough for you than the entertainment value of the production is more than enough to make it worthwhile. As Harrigan explained, “It has strippers and boxing, so what else do you need?”
Those interested in seeing the Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, can still see it at 11:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. on November 20 and at 7:30 p.m. on November 21. Tickets are available at FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre Box Office or online at firstontariopac.ca