Set in Chicago, circa 1919, the plot of Happy End -- like Frank Loesser's Guys and Dolls -- pits organized crime against the Salvation Army. Lieutenant Lilian Holiday makes a brave attempt to reform a group of gangsters led by Bill Cracker and the Lady in Grey. As she is making progress she is thrown out of the Salvation Army because they fear she is too close to the gangsters. Her popularity forces them to take her back.
On Christmas Eve, the gang robs a bank but the money disappears. The Lady in Grey recovers the money and returns it while threatening to kill Bill Cracker for botching the job. The Salvation Army intervenes, and through a series of coincidences leads the show to a happy ending: Bill and Lilian become engaged, the Lady in Grey finds her long lost husband, and the money stays out of the hands of the police.
The Kurt Weill Foundation for Music, founded by Weill's late wife Lotte Lenya, is assisting in this production -- as well as others across two continents -- in celebration of the centennial of Lenya's birthday. This year also marks the centennial celebration of Brecht's birthday.
Other, more famous, collaborations between Brecht and Weill include The Threepenny Opera, and Mahagonny. E.R.C. showcases both European and American-trained actors, committed to the presentation of classic and contemporary European works. Legend has it that E.R.C. artistic director Dale Goulding (who staged an acclaimed Agamemnon in 1997) arrived in Chicago from London with only $40 in his pocket. Managing Director Yasen Peyankov is a political dissident from Bulgaria. Both are thoroughly trained in theatre arts.
The company has achieved critical success in their five and-one-half year existence. Goulding said, "We arrived with a clear goal and commitment to a theatre style based in a technique that creates 'theatre' in the magical sense of the word."
The company's credo is based on the principles of Polish born theorist Jerzy Grotowski. Grotowski established, with critic Ludwig Flaszen, the Polish Laboratory Theatre, later the Institute for Research into Acting. From the beginning his intentions were not production-based, but with emphasis on experimentation with theatrical techniques.
Around 1965, Grotowski achieved international attention, not only for productions like The Constant Prince and Akropolis, but for the theories set down in his book, "Towards a Poor Theatre".
E.R.C. is committed to the belief that theatre "exists to learn to break down barriers which surround us, and to free ourselves from the brakes that hold us back, from the lies about ourselves which we manufacture daily for ourselves and for others; to destroy the limitations caused by our ignorance and lack of courage -- in short, to fill the emptiness in us: to fulfill ourselves. Art is ripening, an evolution, an uplifting which enables us to emerge from darkness into a blaze of light."
Brecht and Weill's Happy End plays through Nov. 14 at the Baird Hall Theater in a production by The European Repertory Company. For tickets ($15) or more information, call (773) 248-0577.
-- By Sean McGrath