In 1899, when Frank Norris published his epic novel McTeague, San Francisco was still reeling from the excesses of the 1849 Gold Rush. Fortune hunters had swelled the city’s ranks, and while most remained poor, the tantalizing aroma of instant wealth hung in the air. In McTeague, Norris captured this San Francisco in meticulous detail, realistically portraying a society ill-prepared for sudden riches.
The Berkeley Repertory Company of California has evoked this same time and place for its premiere staging of Norris’s novel, which runs through Feb. 27. In a faithful adaptation by Neal Bell, McTeague (played by Jeffrey King) is portrayed as a simple brute who was raised in the Sierra Gold Mines, apprenticed to a wandering dentist and at last settled in a small practice on the corner of Geary and Kearny Streets in San Francisco. He courts and marries Trian Sieppe (Melissa Fraser Brown), the cousin of his best friend Marcus (Charles Dean). After Trina wins $5,000 in the lottery, the corrupting power of money overtakes their lives, resulting in a gradual and inevitable descent into violence and death.
A story of obvious regional interest, McTeague first gained national attention with the 1925 release of Erich Von Stroheim’s controversial film adaptation, Greed. Originally intending to film the novel page-by-page, Von Stroheim shot the entire film on location—an unprecedented event. The result was a nine-hour epic which recreated the novel’s opening scene of McTeague’s dental parlor and the streets outside, and then rambled through Oakland, a city park, the Sierras and finally Death Valley. Although MGM executives ruthlessly cut the film to slighty less than three hours, it is still considered a major cinematic achievement.
Berkeley Rep’s McTeague approaches the novel in a different way. For playwright Bell, the central theme is not “greed,” but “longing.” “All the characters are identified with some sense of yearning,” says Bell. “McTeague is an innocent man trying to make his way in the world, stumbling through things and making mistakes until he finds what he thinks he wants–Trina.” However, this marriage to Trina proves to be a tragic mistake.
Director Sharon Ott takes “longing” one step further, remarking that it is the “obsessions” of the characters that lead to their downfall.
In the film, a rich array of supporting characters was largely cut from the final version. Among those missing were Maria Macapa, the half-mad Mexican house servant who captures the interest of a ravenously greedy junk dealer with a tale of her family’s gold dishes, and the retired dressmaker Miss Baker and her love interest, Old Grannis, a shy and awkward veterinarian. Bell restored all these characters, while Ott and designer George Tsypin concentrated on getting the numerous locations onto the stage.
Ott and Tsypin spent days exploring San Francisco’s tenement neighborhoods, and then traveled to the town of Columbia in the Sierra Nevadas to investigate an actual gold mine. The structure of the mine fascinated them and focused their conception of the production. “There were a whole bunch of veins, a number of which ended up as dead ends.” Ott explains. “To us it signified the obsessive nature of all those gold prospectors and the characters of the play.”
A large mountain with a gaping, dark hole dominates Tsypin’s set, and multi-leveled scaffolding built in front of it represent a many-roomed Victorian tenement. Various locales are being presented by projections on the mountain, giving them the peculiarly unreal quality that Ott envisioned. Where Norris’s novel has been called naturalistic, Berkeley Rep’s production is expressionistic, or “naturalism pushed to the extreme,” according to Bell.
San Francisco at the end of the 19th century and the United States at the end of the 20th are not far removed. As Ott explains, “The period following the Gold Rush was one of great flux. In the Bay Area, the longing for instant wealth existed in contrast to the reality of great poverty and hovering disaster. In the case of Trina and McTeague, the longing degenerates into an obsessive greed. The money Trina wins becomes their curse. The lack of social structure and personal moral structures to deal with sudden wealth is a very American problem.”
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