Director Lear deBessonet is not a public company, but if she were, her shares would doubtless rise on the strength
of her current production—a blues-infused version of Brecht’s St. Joan of the Stockyards. This cruel comedy concerns antiquated Midwestern business practices, boasts a pro-Communist message, and concludes with the unfashionable advice: “Only force helps where force rules.” But deBessonet has treated the material deftly, repackaging it as a rich and ardent entertainment.
Though still in her twenties, deBessonet has already amassed a notable body of work, including the recent pieces transFigures and Bone Portraits. These collage creations have suggested considerable directorial talent, but typically proved jumbled and undisciplined. So it’s something of a treat that she’s turned her attentions to a readymade script. Brecht’s play, written in 1930 but unperformed until 1959, offers a malicious riff on the Joan of Arc myth. It concerns Joan Dark, a Salvation Army slip of a thing, who sides with the workers during a lockout at Chicago’s meatpacking plants. Joan loses faith in God, man, and finally herself, eventually succumbing to pneumonia. She’s then heralded as a martyr by the very people she’s come to despise.
A heroine who cries, “Anyone down here who says there is a God . . . should have his head knocked on the pavement until he croaks” doesn’t seem a natural fit for deBessonet, who recently told
The New York Times of “a very intense conversion experience” and her plan “to dedicate my life to God.” In the same article, she described Brecht’s play as “about the problematic relationship between Christianity and social justice and idealism,” adding that she found it “really upsetting.” That upset emerges purposefully in the production. Instead of trying to ape Brecht’s alienation effect, deBessonet approaches the play sincerely, seeking actual answers and emotional resonances. Aided by comely country/blues singer Kelly McRae and a live band, the result is impassioned, not arch. DeBessonet may not find those answers (note the muddled ending), but she admits her hunger for them.
The eight-person cast gamely attempts Brecht’s prose, a low-down parody of the high tones of Schiller and Goethe, translated by Ralph Manheim. Discussions of canned meat and cattle slaughter are rendered in mock-epic, as in this description of unsold meat: “And silence fell upon the mountaintops/And hotel kitchens covered their heads/And stores turned away in horror/And middlemen turned pale.” The actors are assisted by gritty set and costumes (Justin Townsend and Clint Ramos) and Peter Ksander’s evocative lighting. Brecht may suggest that “Before the world can change, humanity must change its nature,” but we’d encourage deBessonet to leave her production mostly unaltered.