Threepenny Opera

Theater an der Ruhr

at the Blackstone Theatre

The Croatian Faust

Theater an der Ruhr

at the Blackstone Theatre

One of the unfortunate side effects of living in an age of artfully packaged events, carefully marketed experiences, and spoon-fed, textbook-driven education is that people get defensive and huffy when performances have not been specifically tailored to their needs. We don’t like works that fail to flatter us into thinking we got all there was to be gotten out of the show.

This is not a productive mind-set to carry into a festival of international theater: theaters from very different cultures, speaking languages not our own, will quite unintentionally offend our prejudices and challenge our sensibilities. But of course we Americans have a long tradition of carrying our closed, provincial mind-sets with us wherever we go, in war or in peace, on business or on vacation.

So it was last week, when those of us in the opening-night audience for Theater an der Ruhr’s production of Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera discovered to our horror that Kurt Weill’s songs, sung in their original German, were not being translated over our handy “simultaneous translation” headphones. To make matters worse, when the show was being translated, the single translator was a woman who spoke in the sort of droning voice we all remember from language lab and who made no attempt to act out her lines. The fiction that seeing a show performed in German but simultaneously translated into English was equivalent to watching a play in one’s native language was immediately exploded.

Nor was this the only problem with Theater an der Ruhr’s production. Anyone who had wandered in hoping for an “authentic” revival of Brecht and Weill’s 1928 hit musical was in for a disappointment. This production is not set, as the original was, in mid-19th-century England (on the eve of Queen Victoria’s coronation) but in a cabaret in Germany in the 1920s. Nor is this a simple transposition of the play from Dickensian England to Weimar Germany.

Rather director Roberto Ciulli and his company have broken the play into pieces–not a difficult task, really, since Brecht’s original play jump cut through the story Brecht borrowed from John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. Then they have reassembled the work into an evening’s worth of variety acts. The narrative–MacHeath’s marriage to Polly, Peachum’s conspiracy to bring the great MacHeath down, MacHeath’s eventual arrest–is told in a series of skits separated from each other by songs and vulgar bits of low farce performed by an Emmett Kellyish clown and an equally maudlin dwarf.

Each character from the play has been reconceived as a performer in this hypothetical cabaret show. MacHeath (Reinhart Firchow) is a very stylish singer in the style of Maurice Chevalier. Polly (Christine Sohn) is a Weimar vamp–made up of equal portions of Sally Bowles, Marlene Dietrich, Louise Brooks, and Charlie Chaplin, complete with wild eye makeup and a tough, sexy, very decadent manner. Mrs. Peachum (Veronika Bayer) is a softer sort, reminiscent of a great French chanteuse, perhaps Madame Avril or Edith Piaf.

The result is a work as uneven and inconsistent as your average cabaret show. Some bits work very well–all of the songs, for example, especially Polly Peachum’s renditions of “Pirate Jenny” and “Barbara Song.” Other bits don’t work so well. Polly and MacHeath’s wedding banquet, for example, just lies there on the stage despite the company’s efforts to yuck it up with plenty of lame gags, most of which have to do with the hoodlums’ awful table manners. This is not a problem though, because as in any decently organized variety show, every bad bit is followed by a better one, and the best bits are the ones you remember when you go home.

But for those who demand that all classics be performed the way God intended, with a central unifying vision and a dramaturge to comb the libraries for evidence of the one true way to perform the work, this sort of freestyle adaptation is insufferable. Hence one critic’s objection to the show on the ground that this “deconstruction” of Brecht is nothing more than a tedious “academic game.” And another’s that the show is “senseless,” “bankrupt of theatrical invention,” and “amateur night in West Germany.” Both complaints are wrongheaded and closed minded: the complainers would be on firmer ground if Threepenny Opera were not a work by Bertolt Brecht.

True, Brecht was very touchy about the way his work was adapted. He became involved in not one but two protracted lawsuits over film versions of his work, one in 1930 over G.W. Pabst’s adaptation of Threepenny Opera and another in 1955 over an East German version of Mother Courage. However, all of the strongest complaints against Ciulli’s production–that it’s amateurish and alienating, that one cannot easily become involved in either the characters or the action–would have delighted Brecht. Nothing offended him more than the way we bourgeois demand that theater numb our minds and flatter our prejudices. The last thing Brecht would have wanted was for his work to collaborate with the notion of theater as a temple–or, if you prefer, a museum–for middle-class values.

Theater an der Ruhr’s production of The Croatian Faust uses all the same techniques that made Threepenny Opera sing–incredible costumes, inventive staging, and intelligent use of familiar music (in this case, Wagner). Yet ironically the result is an artfully packaged, thoroughly pretentious and lifeless work that obscures when it should reveal the very chilling message of Yugoslavian author Slobodan Snajder’s play: that the Nazis twisted for their purposes every organization they infiltrated. Ponderously slow, chronically vague, The Croatian Faust concerns a Croatian theater company whose production of Faust becomes a symbolic battlefield in the war between Communist partisans and Nazi collaborators.

Instead of clearly documenting how this little theater company is infiltrated by Nazi sympathizers and develops a sudden murderous mania for maintaining the purity of the Croatian gene pool, Ciulli’s production prefers to muddle along. It settles for glib but vacuous parallels–that Croatian collaborators were like Faust, easily seduced into selling their souls to the Mephisto of Nazi Germany. And it employs beautiful, easy to decipher but misleading images–fallen angels wear suits the color of storm troopers, a dwarf is dressed as a parody of Wagner’s (and Hitler’s) idealized Germanic knights, and Mephisto, Faust, and Margarete are represented as puppets of some higher power. Many of these images are frighteningly reminiscent of those in Leni Riefenstahl’s work of Nazi propaganda Triumph of the Will.

If I were in a psychoanalytic mood, I would accuse Ciulli and Theater an der Ruhr of wanting to obscure or deny the play’s central metaphor: that Croatia is Nazi Germany in microcosm, and that every act of murder in the play stands for a million murders in the Third Reich. And it scares me that this avant-garde theater, which so willingly looks at the decadence of Threepenny’s Weimar Germany, should be unable to perform a work about Nazi Germany without employing–without irony–the same brain-twisting mythopoeic imagery that united the German people behind Hitler in the first place. Especially on the eve of reunification.

It’s hardly helpful to equate the Nazis with Satan’s band of fallen angels. Mystification of Nazi-inspired crimes only seeks to excuse them by making Nazi collaborators the unwitting victims of supernatural forces. Better to think of the Nazis’ murder of 12 million innocents as a thoroughly human if horrifying event, something we might all be capable of collaborating with given the wrong set of circumstances, than to blame it all on Mephisto.