Magahonny’s ebony streak: discomfiting the comfortable and afflicting the affected

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Sharing a stage at the Sottile with Faustus, the festival’s centerpiece opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny is not what you’d call a hoot, exactly, but Berthold Brecht and Kurt Weill’s colorful, often funny anti-capitalist opera (it’s probably more musical theatre than opera, truth be told) is curiously entertaining, as much for watching what’s happening off stage as on. It’s a morality play set in a fictional Southern “pleasure city” beset by hurricanes, where out-of-towners are urged to entertain themselves and spend their money on overpriced food and drink, a place where the poor are considered criminals. (Sound familiar?)

At two and a half hours, Mahagonny isn’t short, and the story’s about as straight as a paper clip. But extraordinary costumes, lots of raucous songs and behavior, and creative staging (at one point, two dozen men emerged singing from the rear of the house, lurching like zombies and backlit so that their giant shadows scrolled across the stage below) clearly had people in mind of a rollicking cabaret act, at least at first. But like most good cabarets, Mahagonny has a pitch-black undercurrent running through it; by the middle of the third act – with characters gorging themselves into their graves and getting beaten to death in boxing matches for the sake of entertainment – the smiles had disappeared for good. CP critic Fernando Rivas observes that some of the moneyed culture watchers in the audience may have been stung a little by having paid so dearly for an anti-capitalist screed, but in this critic’s opinion, that’s a big part of what we keep artists around for: discomfiting the comfortable and afflicting the affected (a mission they share, it happens, with journalists, that other underpaid species).

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