The Threepenny Opera The Hypocrites

Marxism’s taken one hell of a beating over the last 20 years. The fall of the Berlin Wall. The fall of the Soviet Union. The rise of Chinese capitalism. Fidel Castro’s long fade to black. All of this had to happen, and it’s a good thing it did. But the events that buried communism’s haywire utopian experiments also interred a set of ideas that would probably come in handy right now, when so many working people are suffering through the economic whammy of a recession, a mortgage scandal, a war, outsourcing, and technological shifts that have annihilated whole categories of employment—ideas about class consciousness, solidarity, and the relationship of labor to capital. Without Marx as a point of reference, American workers just don’t have a way to talk about this bouquet of crises, much less respond to it. Say what you want about the old German philosopher, he provided an analysis infinitely more inspiring and useful than the one I hear so often lately, the one that starts and ends with “We’re fucked.” Proletarian ideology-wise, it’s a desert out there.

But there’s at least one place where it’s still possible to find a little passionate Marxism: at the theater, in the plays of Bertolt Brecht. Sure, that passion has to be experienced at least partly as nostalgia these days—but when you’ve got a committed young ensemble led by a director like the Hypocrites’ Sean Graney, who uses the stage as a kind of particle accelerator for actors, even nostalgia can look awfully lively. Although flawed in certain hard-to-ignore ways, the Hypocrites’ version of The Threepenny Opera—Brecht’s great 80-year-old collaboration with Kurt Weill—parties like it’s 1928.

A reworking of The Beggar’s Opera, John Gay’s 18th-century musical satire, The Threepenny Opera takes the traditional English trope of the romantic highwayman and gives it a twist that turns it into a political fable. Macheath—Mack the Knife of the famous song—is a charismatic jack-of-all-crimes and gang chieftain whose priors run the gamut from petty theft to arson, rape, and murder. Only there’s no record of Macheath’s priors because he’s so tight with Tiger Brown, the police commissioner. Brown even takes time out from his preparations for the Queen’s coronation festivities to attend a wedding supper when the smooth thug marries young Polly Peachum,

Polly’s something of an underworld aristocrat herself: her parents train and equip London’s beggars. But the Peachums aren’t the least bit happy with the match. In fact, they’re so enraged when they finally get wind of it—well afterward—that they set out to destroy Macheath. Quickly learning that an appeal to the legal system won’t work, they resort to tactics that exploit their considerable influence among the city’s legions of poor folks and whores. The narrative becomes a series of shrewd gambits and narrow escapes punctuated by Weill’s ballads of cynicism, black comedy, or rage—like the one where a hotel maid’s Cinderella fantasy extends to bloody death for her bosses.

It also evolves into something more than a sordid underworld tiff. In soliciting the help of London’s poor masses, Polly’s father, J.J. Peachum, finds himself at the head of a movement that’s no longer about Macheath per se but about getting and using the collective power to be free of parasites like Macheath, however dashing and well-connected they may be. There’s class struggle in the air.

Brecht and Weill had too much in the way of political smarts and showbiz cunning to be doctrinaire about any of this. There’s no prole hero in The Threepenny Opera (though there’s a tragic one: Jenny, the whore whose relationship with Macheath comprises a volatile mix of love and money), no such thing as a pair of clean hands or a pure motive (though old man Peachum gets to give a pretty stirring speech about the potential of the people unleashed). In the end an absurd but—given the way things go—comically appropriate deus ex machina blows any progress to smithereens. But the opera’s ultimate scope, its fierce worldliness and cut-the-bullshit confidence, its willingness to take sides in a big fight between haves and have-nots are bracing in a moment like ours when so many playwrights retreat into small, anomic gestures even as enormous changes are going on all around them.

Graney adds a touch of 21st-century star worship by emphasizing the weird idolatry directed at Macheath—on the familiar principle, apparently, that any outrage can be forgiven if it makes you rich and famous. Robert McLean’s Tiger Brown, in particular, takes the fawning to hilarious, homoerotic extremes. The production also updates Brecht’s consciously artificial theatrical style in sharp ways. Occupying the cavernous entirety of Steppenwolf’s Garage Theatre, Lee Keenan’s set offers a playground for performance. A small stage at one end has a slide that generates some satisfyingly sudden moves. And there’s a pair of big, kidney-shaped platforms in the center, around which some of the audience can sit like patrons on the runway at a strip bar. Graney’s athletic ensemble members are always leaping up on one or another of the platforms to deliver speeches or sing. Meanwhile, choreographer Tommy Rapley gets the large cast circulating through the space in fascinating, occasionally powerful combinations. In one especially effective passage early on, a group runs back and forth across the space, stopping short each time one of them screams and goes limp—another victim of Macheath.

But the space can also work against the production, its concrete floor swallowing most of what’s said or sung when the actors are at a distance from wherever you happen to be sitting. Some, like Alex Balestrieri as a street singer and Sara Sevigny as Mrs. Peachum, have the pipes and presence to overcome; Kurt Ehrmann isn’t much of a singer but succeeds as J.J. Peachum on his ability to command the kidney-shaped platforms.

Others, though, end up screeching by the second hour, with 40 minutes left to go. Gregory Hardigan is one of these: trying to make a case for Macheath’s violent magnetism, he ends up barking way off-key. That this doesn’t ruin everything is some sort of testament—to Graney’s inventiveness, to the company’s formidable energy, maybe to the need for a show like The Threepenny Opera that can give you an inkling of where and with whom your interests lie.v

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