Splinter Group Studio


Magellan Theatre

at the Synergy Center

In an atmosphere of new-right resurgence, it’s interesting to see young theater companies turning to the old left for inspiration. Perhaps ambivalence about present-day politics is stirring artists to reexamine uncompromising, politically charged musicals of the 1920s and ’30s. Famous Door Theatre recently mounted Mann Ist Mann, Bertolt Brecht’s 1926 study of social brainwashing; now that show’s musical director, James Schneider, is playing Macheath in an imaginative and energetic Magellan Theatre version of The Threepenny Opera, written by Brecht and composer Kurt Weill in 1928 as a direct result of Weill’s admiration for Mann Ist Mann, which prompted him to contact Brecht about collaborating. Meanwhile the Splinter Group is offering a powerfully sung, minimalistically staged revival of The Cradle Will Rock, composer-librettist Marc Blitzstein’s 1936 singspiel about the American labor movement, which Blitzstein dedicated to Brecht.

Radical for their time and still unusual in ours, these two landmark musicals focus on the place of common folk in a society that preaches human equality and Christian charity but rewards ruthlessness and corruption. Threepenny uses the criminal underclass of Victorian London as a reflection of bourgeois pieties and pretensions. The hero, Macheath, is a murderer and rapist who wears white kid gloves and demands that his thugs know whether the furniture they’re stealing is Louis Quatorze or Chippendale; Macheath’s antagonist, J.J. Peachum, is a Bible-spouting hypocrite who licenses the city’s beggars (and orders the beating of any panhandler who hasn’t paid the license fee) and blackmails the police chief, Tiger Brown, into arresting Macheath, who just happens to be Brown’s best buddy. And in The Cradle Will Rock the heroine is a whore driven to her work by economic necessity. A group of pious patriots mock her until they learn they’re just as much prostitutes as she is; instead of selling sex for cash, they’ve sold their souls to the all-powerful steel magnate Mr. Mister. Neither work is a call to arms for the masses but both call to middle- and upper-class theatergoers–the traditional audience for the operas and operettas these shows spoof–to acknowledge their role in creating the crime they fear and to recognize their common humanity with hookers, hooligans, outlaws, and agitators.

Brecht and Weill are of course well-known–in no small part thanks to Blitzstein, whose mid-50s adaptation of The Threepenny Opera launched a vogue for the show and its creators. Yet 30 years after his murder by gay-bashing muggers, Blitzstein himself is little remembered except as the English-language lyricist of the song “Mack the Knife.” He was an important operatic composer, a student of Arnold Schoenberg’s who rejected the intellectual exclusivism of “serious” music to embrace a career in theater music. He was the resident composer of Orson Welles’s legendary Mercury Theatre, which he named; it was Welles who directed the premiere of The Cradle Will Rock the year after it was written. Unable to find a commercial sponsor, Welles and producer John Houseman prepared the piece under the auspices of the WPA’s Federal Theatre Project. Foreshadowing today’s arts-endowment controversies, it became a target of congressional censors, who imposed a Federal Theatre moratorium just as the musical was set to open (in repertory with Doctor Faustus–one congressman asked in all seriousness whether Christopher Marlowe was a communist). In defiance of Actors’ Equity, which prohibited WPA actors from performing anywhere else despite the moratorium, Welles’s company moved the show to a vaudeville theater, where it was performed without sets or costumes (these were government property) by actors who sang their roles from seats in the auditorium while Welles read the stage directions and Blitzstein played the score on a piano.

Besides making celebrities of Blitzstein and Welles, the episode established the way the piece should be performed: not elaborately, as Welles had originally intended, but with bare-bones simplicity. That clearly suits the tiny, low-budget Splinter Group: director Matt O’Brien has kept his small, scuff-marked stage bare except for folding metal chairs, where the actors sit, along the wall, when they’re not performing. The sense of community is perfect for Blitzstein’s populist pageant, in which various citizens of Steeltown, USA, arrested at a labor demonstration, recount their case histories to a night-court stenographer. Looming over every story is the all-powerful J.P. Morgan surrogate Mr. Mister: he tells Editor Daily what to print in the newspaper (he owns it), he tells President Prexy what to teach in the local college (he’s a trustee) and Doctor Specialist what to diagnose (he gives research grants), he intimidates Harry Druggist into framing an innocent worker for labor terrorism (he holds the drugstore mortgage), and he steers Dauber the painter and Yasha the musician into apolitical “art for art’s sake” (his wife donates money to the arts). (The artists’ stereotyped homosexuality is explained by Blitzstein biographer Eric A. Gordon as a sub rosa reference to Blitzstein’s friends Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson.) The only man Mr. Mister can’t control is Larry Foreman, the loudmouthed union organizer whose jackhammer rendition of the title song’s storm imagery clearly heralds revolution: “That’s thunder, that’s lightning / And it’s going to surround you! / . . . When the wind blows, the cradle will rock.”

This Cradle still rocks–but it creaks a bit too. Blitzstein’s dramaturgy is naive to say the least: the characters are two-dimensional good guys or bad guys, and there’s not a word about corrupt union bosses or the excesses of Stalinism. Nor does the script convey the full extent of antiunion violence; though one scene depicts an innocent Polish couple being killed by a bomb (set off by strikebreakers to discredit the union), nothing onstage approaches the scale of incidents like the Memorial Day 1937 demonstration in South Chicago, in which ten striking workers were shot to death–seven of them in the back.

The work’s great strength is its score: a rich, warmhearted torrent of melody. These songs don’t sound much like other tunes of the day, like Rodgers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine,” Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” or Frank Churchill’s score for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs–whose depiction of happy little laborers guarding an endangered aristocrat is as far from this as you can get. Blitzstein’s harmonies are much more pungent, his rhythmic structures more unpredictable, his melodies more linked to naturalistic, class-indicating speech patterns. But the music’s wit, zest, and quirky intelligence make The Cradle Will Rock constantly interesting, especially as superbly sung under keyboardist Jim Collins’s musical direction. Standouts among the consistently fine 17-member ensemble include Daniel Mailley, a heartbreaking lug as Harry Druggist; Susan C. Thompson as Ella Hammer, who belts out the conscience-pricking anthem “Joe Worker”; Sharon Carr as Mrs. Mister, a social climber on an operatic scale; Chris McNamara, who plays Larry Foreman with a vaudevillian’s snappy exuberance; and Patty Kunz, understatedly tough and straightforward as the prostitute who sings the revival’s major discovery, the little-known “Nickel Under the Foot”–a stunning ballad reminding us that every victory is won at someone else’s expense.

Director Jeremy Wechsler’s decision to present The Threepenny Opera in a different translation than Blitzstein’s has both advantages and disadvantages. Village Voice theater critic Michael Feingold’s translation was presented on Broadway in a disastrous 1989 production starring the rock singer Sting; the Feingold libretto’s virtues were buried under sluggish pacing and performances ranging from perfunctory to inept. Wechsler’s superior staging reveals this unpublished script to be less gracefully witty than Blitzstein’s but quite funny in its own raunchy way. It’s a more accurate rendition of the original German, since Blitzstein took considerable liberties in his quest for musically fluid, idiomatically American lyrics; and the Feingold script offers interesting variations on the well-known material, which hasn’t dated a whit since 1928: Brecht’s jabs at coldhearted indifference to suffering are as fresh as this month’s issue of Streetwise. Where The Cradle Will Rock’s biggest shortcoming is its cardboard heroes and villains, The Threepenny Opera revels in the ambiguities of human nature while delivering its lectures on crime and capitalism. Brecht’s assessment of sexual relationships and property ownership remains sharp and chilling, but ensuring the work’s durability as sheer entertainment are the raffish charm of the characters (drawn from John Gay’s 18th-century ballad opera The Beggar’s Opera) and the delicious sourness of Kurt Weill’s brilliant score.

Sheer entertainment is what Magellan Theatre intends to deliver, with mixed but often delightful results. Putting their own spin on a classic, they constantly remind us that they’re contemporary artists: Mara Blumenfeld’s trashy, colorful costumes are a patchwork of anachronisms (Macheath’s two brides, Polly Peachum and Lucy Brown, wear as mourning garb black miniskirts with 19th-century trains), and the actors are as likely to brandish cigarette lighters and styrofoam plates as highwaymen’s pistols and ivory-handled walking sticks. They take special pleasure in the musical numbers: singing a melodramatic duet, Macheath and Polly leap about the stage like silent-cinema lovers, while the whore Jenny (Macheath’s lover, though she betrays him) belts out “Mack the Knife” sprawled on top of a piano. The happy-ending finale, a parodic pastiche of Handel and Bach in which Macheath is saved from the gallows, even features a maypole dance led by Mr. Peachum.

Like Splinter Group’s Cradle, Magellan’s Threepenny features a terrific young cast who are for the most part equal to the musical and dramatic demands of the work. Especially effective are James Schneider’s insectlike Macheath, who verges at times on a Jewish vaudeville clown; Roscoe Fraser’s sanctimonious shit of a Peachum (like Lost in Space’s Dr. Smith with an operatic baritone); Rebecca Kolber’s infantile, over-the-top Lucy; and Kate Fry’s Polly, wonderfully dippy and carnal: her low-comedy version of “Pirate Jenny” is by far the most convincing alternative I’ve seen to the gutsy pathos Weill’s widow Lotte Lenya gave the song.

But the production lacks a sense of danger and desperation. Part of the problem is Feingold’s omission of a crucial speech by Macheath reminding listeners of the story’s moral allegory: “What is the burgling of a bank to the founding of a bank?” More important is the show’s pervasive playfulness: the cast are having a great time, but they’ve forgotten the story’s point–the crime-breeding poverty in which the characters live, and the audience’s role in perpetuating it. More bite would have made this a Threepenny Opera that draws blood, as Brecht intended. For all The Cradle Will Rock’s flaws, it has a rousing committedness that’s like a bolt of lightning in our evasive social and moral climate.