Playwright: Jacques Brel,
translated by Arnold Johnston
At: Theo Ubique Theatre Company
at No Exit Café, N. Glenwood,
6970 N. Greenwood
Phone: 773-370-0235; $20
Runs through: Aug. 30
Photo courtesy of Theo Ubique Theatre
One of the most recognizable songs by Belgian-French singer and composer Jacques Brel is 'Ne me quitte pas,' best known in English as 'If You Go Away,' as translated by Rod McKuen. But the literal meaning of the French phrase is 'Don't leave me.' There's a big difference in tone between McKuen's future conditional version and the passionate imperative of the literal translation.
Theo Ubique Theatre Company previously had great success with a revue of Brel songs using the standard and familiar translations, but came to know the material well enough to understand something was missing—something in the nature of raw, rough poetry found in Brel's slangy original French. So for this new show, they set about creating their own renditions with translator Arnold Johnston. Those familiar with the famous revue Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris may miss famous tunes such as Carousel and If We Only Had Time, but will find other well-known numbers freshly revealed, such as Amsterdam and the Song of Jacky. There are new gems, too, as Lonesome Losers of the Night introduces unfamiliar Brel songs.
The 90-minute show has the loosest of structures: Two soldiers stop by a waterfront bar and share stories, drinks and time with the bartender and the local hooker through songs of longing, songs of lust, songs of drinking, songs of betrayal and songs of ego, a Brel specialty. Johnston's translations are wonderfully vigorous, colorfully colloquial, deliciously vulgar and sometimes unexpectedly poetic. The Song of Jacky is one of Brel's egotistical tunes, famous from the earlier Jacques Brel revue for its catch-line 'cute, cute, cute in a stupid-ass way.' In Johnston's version, the line is rendered 'handsome and dumb and an absolute shit.'
Just two songs later, in a striking change of tone, Johnston, music director Joshua Stephen Kartes and director Fred Anzevino, offer a profound reminiscence of childhood, 'Mon Enfance,' with the powerful image of 'winters spent in the womb of the family home/A great ship of stone ... What surprised me the most was to be part of a clan/Who had taught me to cry for my innocence lost.' I don't mind saying this unfamiliar Brel treasure blew me away.
The four singers are veterans Jeremy Trager, Jenny Lamb, Eric Martin and Chicago newcomer Chris Damiano: attractive—even sexy—players who blend well together in several tight harmony sections and also have their individual moments to shine. Staging is relatively simple in the intimate No Exit Café ( food and non-alcoholic drinks available ) , with a small bar set, the piano and the occasional use of café aisles.
To close with the cliché, Lonesome Losers of the Night is a winner.