Theater note: Servants and masters at the Public Works Yard

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Welcome to the world of fake smoking and imaginary water, of two-dimensional sets and cartoon characterization. Welcome to Brecht’s Mr. Puntila and His Hired Man Matti as staged by Frank Theatre.

The plot revolves around Mr. Puntila, the richest landowner in Llama. He is generous and kind when he is drunk and a shrewd, cruel businessman when he is sober. His left-hand man is his driver Matti, a practical fellow who speaks the truth to his boss without ever being seduced by Puntila’s generous moods. Matti is honest and looks out for the landowner, but knows very well his own station in life and never tries to be anything different.

Matti is played, with earnestness and clarity, by Carson Lee. Puntila is played by Grant Richey, in a tour de force portrayal that ranges from bafoonery to delusion. Emily Zimmer plays Puntila’s daughter, who falls for Matti’s no-nonsense style, but is ultimately spurned in her affections for him because he knows that their worlds can never intertwine. Zimmer plays the part of the haughty rich girl with surprising ferocity at times and simple vulnerability at others. The scenes between Eva and Matty are humorous in the manner of the screwball comedies of the 1930s, and director Wendy Knox does a good job of finding the humor in the text as well as the political message.

The cast is rounded out by a collage of colorful characters from the town. Maria Asp, Cheryl Willis, Celeste Jones, and Aja Pridgen are hilarious as Puntila’s would-be fiancées, and Patrick Bailey is appropriately simpery as Eva’s suitor. Two young boys, Odin and Kai Russel, have a poignant moment when, as the sons of one of Puntila’s workers who gets fired, they gain a lesson in the ways of the world.

The set is a delicious design by John Bueche. The estate is represented by trees painted on the walls, line-drawn houses, and cardboard-like doors. The production features some ingenious visual moments. For example, at one point two actresses become a single nine-foot woman. Towards the end of the play, Matti creates a mountain out of chairs and tables for Puntila’s pleasure, and the moment is fantastic.

At a moment in our country when the distance between the haves and the have-nots keeps growing larger and larger, this is a very timely play. I highly suggest you check it out.

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