Brecht's 'Puntila' shows how the rich make life difficult

Class semi-consciousness: Grant Richey as Puntila, Carson Lee as Matti
Tony Nelson

Frank Theatre at Bridge Building, City of Minneapolis Public Works Yard, through April 13;

In vino veritas, as the saying goes; it's Latin for get drunk and spill the beans. Bertolt Brecht's Puntila and His Hired Man Matti features the titular landowner (Grant Richey) in alternating states of sobriety and drunkenness. When sauced, he's garrulous and egalitarian. When sober, he's a complete bastard.

We meet him in a tavern on the road in Finland, where he's enjoying the results of a two-day bender. Puntila doesn't even recognize his chauffeur, Matti (Carson Lee), when Matti arrives and testily points out that he's been outside waiting in the car the entire time. Puntila responds by pointing out that he recognizes Matti is an actual human being, apparently a major insight across class lines for which Puntila obviously feels he deserves inordinate credit.

Richey's Puntila is explosively deranged: loud and mercurial with a palpable air of reckless menace. The next stage of his rampage concerns his daughter Eva (Emily Zimmer), engaged to be married to an attaché named Eino (Patrick Bailey). The major snag concerns Eva's dowry, for which Puntila might need to sell some of his land (he briefly considers selling himself as a gigolo to the attaché's mother, but some ideas don't hold water even when you're profoundly hammered).

Money inundates every line of this play, not least when Puntila subsequently wanders into a village in search of liquor and winds up proposing marriage to four young girls in succession. Each tells him of the hash her life and work have become; Richey, chillingly, plays the scene as a romp, with Puntila having lascivious fun with it all.

The question, as always, is whether the bright ideas of the night before stand up the morning after; in this case, Puntila doesn't appear to remember a thing he's done. Richey turns acidic, sneering, his voice dripping with contempt as Puntila berates Matti and accuses him of stealing a wallet left in his care while the boss man was soused. Matti is no innocent, though; he schemes with Eva to derail her engagement (Zimmer keeps her character's full intentions masked by fecklessness and caprice).

What exactly Matti might be up to is also unclear, though in this case it's a problem. Lee and director Wendy Knox opt to present the driver as a fatalist hemmed in by circumstance—he tries to keep Puntila at arm's length when the boss is ripped and take his employer's abuse in stride during bouts of sobriety. Which makes sense, though Lee's long-suffering mien and frequent looks of irritation make Matti seem like a player less clever than he could be.

In the second act, Puntila expounds on his "inflexible rule" of never mixing socially with the servants (the joke, of course, is that he has been smashing the rule to smithereens throughout), then, pissed-off from his hangover, throws out his four would-be fiancées after they make their way to his estate.

He then turns psychopathic at his daughter's engagement party. After Bailey gives a hilarious turn as Eino, literally squirming with eagerness to please, Puntila calls the attaché a shithead and throws him out.

Curing his bad mood with liberal applications of booze, Puntila proceeds to get epically schnockered and demands that Eva marry Matti instead. Here Lee's cribbed take on his character begins to make sense. With icy satisfaction, Matti tests Eva's ability to be wife to a workingman, pointing out her ignorance and limitation at every turn. It's a world in which mixing between classes is only possible through the lens of the bottle.

By the end, we feel fairly beaten down by repetition of this insight, and get a sense that this show never comes together with a liftoff of energy or purpose (Richey, a madman throughout, is the major exception). Puntila and Matti ascend a mountain made of chairs; the wasted gentleman waxes poetic about the land, while the dispossessed worker frowns and knows none of it is his. It's emblematic of a smart, rambling take on the general stench that money gives off; the question is whether it's worth enduring so much in order to breathe the fumes.

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