THE THREEPENNY OPERA
Prologue Theatre Productions
at the Court Theatre
Nearly 60 years after its premiere on August 31, 1928, The Threepenny Opera is as fresh as ever. Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s caustic, highly politicized variation on John Gay’s 1728 Beggar’s Opera is one of those works that never seem to date. This is in part because human nature remains the same–motivated by primal urges: sex, hunger, the will to survive at any cost–and in part because Weill’s score remains so weirdly appealing–traditionally tuneful yet never in the slightest bit predictable or old-fashioned.
In Threepenny, Brecht and Weill turned conventional assumptions about human behavior topsy-turvy, specifically poking fun at the sentimentality of popular musical theater. You want romance? Sure, we’ll give you romance: an elopement between a handsome man and a pretty girl. Except instead of a student prince, the man happens to be a murderer and gang leader–name of Macheath, aka Mack the Knife–and the girl’s the daughter of a pair of con artists. Marital responsibility? When Mack has to flee the police, it’s his bride Polly who takes over his criminal operation–and she runs it more efficiently and more brutally than he did. Law and order? Represented by none other than the chief of police himself, Tiger Brown–whose mutually beneficial friendship with Macheath goes back to their Army days, when they performed their patriotic duty (killing foreigners).
And religion? Polly’s father, Mr. Peachum, turns directly to the Bible for inspiration–specifically, for inspirational proverbs he can use on gullible do-gooders to separate them from their money. Instead of direct-mail pitches or televangelism, Peachum’s scam is to organize beggars into a guild, costume them as cripples and blind men, send them out to panhandle from the middle classes, and skim a healthy hunk of the profits.
Threepenny is being offered by Prologue Theatre, a Hyde Park-based troupe that specializes in musicals. Director Michael Hildebrand and musical director Anita Greenberg have chosen the Marc Blitzstein version of Threepenny–a loose adaptation that’s far less authentic Brecht than the Eric Bentley or Ralph Manheirn-John Willett translations. For my money, Blitzstein’s is the most singable, most idiomatic, and funniest English-language rendering of the text. (It was originally produced off-Broadway in 1954–shortly after Weill’s death and shortly before Brecht’s–in a staging that starred Lotte Lenya, Beatrice Arthur, and Charlotte Rae.) An example of how freely Blitzstein handled Brecht’s lyrics to fit Weill’s music in a way American audiences would find more comfortable can be found by comparing two versions of the second-act finale, “How to Survive”:
What keeps mankind alive? The fact that millions
Are daily tortured, stifled, punished, silenced, oppressed . . .
For once you must try not to shirk the facts.
Mankind is kept alive by bestial acts
What keeps a man alive? He lives on others
He likes to taste them first, then eat them whole if he can . . .
Remember if you wish to stay alive.
For once do something bad and you’ll survive
Director Hildebrand has decided to take some freedoms of his own with Threepenny: he’s changed the setting from Victorian London to 1920s Chicago–the setting, interestingly, that Brecht and Weill themselves chose for their Happy End, which followed Threepenny exactly a year later. (Coincidentally, the Court Theatre, which is playing host to Prologue’s Threepenny this summer, has scheduled Happy End as its opening show next fall.) The new setting seems a good idea in theory–after all, Chicago in the Roaring 20s is a perfect example of Brecht’s vision of human viciousness hiding behind fine but phony manners–but it ends up feeling a bit gimmicky in execution. It necessitates several bothersome lyric changes: the “moon over Dock Street” becomes the moon over Clark Street, and the “queen’s coronation”–an offstage event of crucial importance to the plot–becomes the “mayor’s installation.” In this context, Peachum’s threat to disrupt the coronation/installation with a poor people’s demonstration offers an amusing parallel to the events surrounding the City Council election of Acting Mayor Sawyer.
But you could set Threepenny on a space shuttle and it would always rise or fall on the same strengths and flaws. When Threepenny works, it’s because of the crispness with which its performers deliver the skewering logic of Brecht’s words and Weill’s music. In this respect, Prologue’s production has a lot of drawbacks. The director and actors make the easiest mistake one can make with Brecht: they think that didacticism equals stridency. Ted Koch, a talented and engaging young actor (as he showed in Apple Tree Theatre’s 110 in the Shade earlier this season), and looking here a good deal like Marlon Brando in Guys and Dolls, overstates Macheath’s slimy sexuality and his class-conscious anger; a line like “What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?” comes off as a boy’s clever but meaningless paradox. And David Cottingham as Peachum–here outfitted with deathly white makeup and a cracker accent, like a cross between Sweeney Todd and Jimmy Swaggart–never for a second comes alive as a human being; when he sings such powerful and instructive numbers as “The World Is Mean” and the “Useless Song,” he suddenly turns stiff and operatic. A similar problem afflicts Sidni Kiely as Peachum’s booze-guzzling wife; so their hilarious tirade against romantic illusions, “Instead Of,” translates as cold and arch.
The problem is that Hildebrand thinks Brechtian “alienation” means we shouldn’t believe the characters. Not so; we have to believe in their reality in order to understand them. We should not be suckered in by our emotional responses to them; but that’s something different.
To his credit, Hildebrand excels at directing the group members: his stagings of the large second- and third-act choruses are strong and visually dynamic, and the tableau he has devised as a backdrop to the opening song, “Mack the Knife,” is a stunning theatrical realization of 20s expressionism. But the individual scenes between small groups of characters, though interesting to look at, nearly all fail as both instruction and comedy. Timing is off, jokes fall flat left and right, and basic character relationships are unclear.
As for the music: Weill’s score, with its bracing chromaticism, eerie orchestral textures, percolating internal rhythms, shifting meters, and melding of influences ranging from dancehall jazz to Bach chorales, is a daunting challenge to even the most professional company. The small band led by pianist Anita Greenberg has more than its share of missed notes, and in dissonant harmonies like Weill’s every note counts. Greenberg also has made some strangely inappropriate choices–for example, in “How to Survive,” the logic of the music is skewered by Greenberg’s decision to conduct the song’s different sections in drastically different tempos.
But there are several very good musical performances from the actors. Although they suffer from the dramatic drawbacks I’ve already mentioned, Ted Koch, David Cottingham, and Sidni Kiely are all excellent singers; so are Jamie Pachino, as Polly, and Henry Odum, as the Street Singer; and Sherrie Keir, as the whore Jenny, belts out the immortal “Pirate Jenny” with memorably fierce intensity and a cutting high tone that recalls Patti LuPone. Jenny and Macheath’s duet “Tango Ballad”–a little ditty about prostitution and abortion–is a high point of the show musically, though it needs to be restaged so that the singers come downstage (they’re drowned out by the band, which is in exceptionally good but loud form in this number). And the choral sound in such tunes as “How to Survive” and the “Victoria’s messenger” finale–changed here to “His Honor’s messenger”–is dynamite.
For all its drawbacks, this is a terrific-looking production: Ron Greene’s expressionist set–off-kilter cutout buildings, silhouetted bridges and towers, and angular ramps–David Gipson’s moodily colored lighting, and Lanore Diefenbach’s marvelously tawdry costumes all perfectly capture the potential inherent in resetting the show in 20s Chicago. If only the muscle of the show fit, into its clothing better.