Review: “The Last Days of the Commune” (Prop Thtr)

Lyle Mays, Barry Lohman, Rory Jobst, and Don Schroeder/Photo courtesy of Prop Thtr.

Show: “The Last Days of the Commune”

Company: Prop Thtr

Venue: Prop Thtr (3502 N Elston Ave)

“One or all, all or nothing, it will be.” So sings the collection of French peasants defending their freedom in Prop Thtr’s “The Last Days of the Commune.” And true to Brechtian form, as the play is an unfinished story by Bertold Brecht, adapted by Stefan Brün, Diane Hamm, Kyle Anne Greer, and directed by Stefan Brün, this song of determination is not joyful or defiant. The lyrics reflect the ideal, while the exhausted Frenchmen and women merely go through the motions of throwing up their fists and keeping up with the jaunty melody. This has been a short but costly revolution, their glassy eyes tell us, and the bloody end is in sight.

I had not known very much about the Paris Commune before attending this show, and I will say the history is communicated in fits and starts, the way Brecht liked it. Rather than allow the audience to get caught up in an emotion-based narrative about the months between March and May 1871, we see scenes of political speeches and rallying cries juxstaposed with the almost-too-peaceful capture of a cannon by radicalized French troops and peasants. We meet true believers in overthrowing the Paris government after a military shutdown of the city, like Papa (Lyle Mays). We meet fellow travelers who benefit from protection by the revolutionary National Guard, like the impoverished Madame Cabet (Karen Fort) and her son Jean (Christopher Sylvie). We hear from Thiers (Rick Reardon), the government’s official leader, as he conspires with Prussian leaders to quell the anger of the people. The audience pieces together a colleage of discontent, and must accept the dislocation as a form of intellectual exercise for Brecht’s belief in thinking “beyond defeat.”

Moments like that worn-out protest song make for memorable theatre in Prop’s examination of revolt, but I often found myself stretching to connect the conversations onstage with their historical moment. Perhaps that is the purpose, as Brün and Hamm wisely focus attention on how the men and women of the Commune view their revolution, and how they plan to create a new government in the midst of a military crackdown on personal liberty. Their conversations mirror questions that we ask today. What is the best means to achieving freedom? Who gets to speak and who gets to rule? How does a community determine what is best for the group, especially when a ruling class always steps forward to create institutions? There is a humorous scene halfway through the play where the leaders of the revolution guess at how to pay the salaries of those running the city’s lights and education initiatives, and it proves how unprepared they are to actually lead beyond a revolution.

Paul Brennan, Zoë Miller, Karen Fort, and Lyle Mays/Photo courtesy of Prop Thtr.

The musical performances are the standout in this show. Delivered by various cast members with verve, with compositions and arrangements created by Greer, the songs reflect styles as different as punk rock, jazz, blues, and ballads. Brecht always included songs as a way to further alienate the viewer, and draw them into a greater philosophical examination of the story. Simply by interrupting the story with song, he drew you out of the play and back into your world. But here, the songs provide relief and connection. Early on, the performers stomp around joyously, creating a chorus of optimistic voices. A young woman in love (Zoë Pike) sings a ditty about chives, and I felt connected to her in that moment. So while there is value in Brecht’s epic approach to intellectual stimulation, it was nice to empathize with the characters in those moments.

If the main goal of the production is to motivate those in the audience to think beyond defeat in our own times, I am unsure about the message we are left with; strands of Marx’s writing are spoken via projection towards the end of the play, as this revolt inspired his own political theories. But the value of the loss is still to be struggled with. Are we the failed revolutionaries? How are we to avoid their missteps and to claim their victories? The play doesn’t tell us, and that may be one way it parts with Brecht, who loved underlining his themes. It seems we must work events out for ourselves — the true call to action for anyone living in interesting times.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Adapted Brecht provides food for thought in song and events.

RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”