Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Off Broadway: The Threepenny Opera



Joy Franz in The Threepenny Opera.  Photo by Jill Usdan
I have long been of two minds about The Threepenny Opera.  On the one hand, I love the music.  I am enthralled by Kurt Weill’s blend of folk, jazz and avant-garde melodies which is largely responsible for the play’s popular appeal.  (Indeed, the play's most popular song, “Mack the Knife,” has become a jazz classic having been performed by everyone from Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald to Bobby Darin.)  And when the play is performed in one of its softer renditions (e.g. in the Mark Blitzstein translation staged in New York in 1954-61) wherein Macheath is portrayed as more of a lovable scoundrel, a seducer, a rogue, and the kind of bad boy good girls can’t resist, rather than as a vicious serial killer, then the play itself can be lots of fun.
Moreover, this is unquestionably and deservedly Bertolt Brecht’s best known work, an early example of what he considered to be his "epic theater" through which he sought to arouse his audience to social action (as opposed to what he considered to be the “theater of illusions” in which audiences were merely entertained.)  In attempting this, he was remarkably successful: the play was a sensation at its 1928 premiere in Berlin and, by 1933, by which time the rise of Hitler had forced Brecht and Weill to leave Germany, it already had been translated into 18 languages and been performed more than 10,000 times.
But therein lies the rub.  Brecht’s Marxist and anti-capitalist sentiments at the core of this show are anathema to me.  His belief that the least productive dregs of society - murderers and thieves, beggars and whores - ought not be held responsible for their actions; that it is capitalism, the free market and bad luck which have made them what they are; that they, themselves, therefore, bear no responsibility for their behavior, and that their salvation depends only upon some deus ex machina in the form of some sort of governmental magical largesse – all that is, to my mind, not merely preposterous but deeply immoral.
Which means that when the play is performed in one of its grittier translations, such as the one by Michael Feingold that Marvel Rep has chosen to use for this production, I don’t find the play nearly as entertaining as when it is performed in one of its softer and more fun-loving translations.
Of course, one must assume that the decision by Marvell Rep to use the Feingold rather than the Blitzstein translation was completely intentional.  When Marvell elected to include The Threepenny Opera as one of the six plays in its 2012 series of “Banned and Burned” plays in the first place, it was prompted to do so at least in part by its empathy for the Occupy Wall Street movement.  As Lenny Liebowitz, the director has stated: “While searching for a musical for our 2012 season, Occupy Wall Street began to capture national and international attention.  We realized, if there ever has been a time for Brecht, and particularly for Threepenny, it’s now.  The Threepenny Opera is just as radical today as it was when the Nazis banned it, and it still astonishes with its combination of filth and grandeur, savagery and charm.”
And I can readily understand that.  While few if any of the participants in Occupy Wall Street may be murderers and thieves, whores and beggars, they are certainly parasites, willing to accept monetary support, food, medical attention, sanitary facilities, and whatever else they can get from the productive members of society while doing nothing productive themselves.  And their mantra appears to be one of resentment against the “haves,” not because of anything illegal or immoral that the “haves” might have done to acquire their favored positions but simply because they “have” and the occupiers “have not.”  And, like the characters in The Threepenny Opera, the “occupiers” believe that that is simply a matter of luck or the consequence of an evil capitalist system which can and should only be redressed through some magical redistribution of wealth facilitated by the government.
In the Marvell Rep production of The Threepenny Opera now being staged at TBG Theatre, Macheath, aka Mack the Knife (Matt Faucher) is portrayed as a charming scalawag with inordinate sexual appeal to the ladies but, even more than that, as a gang leader, pimp, murderer and thief. A Casanova, to be sure, but a vicious lowlife to boot.  His latest conquest is Polly Peachum (Emma Rosenthal) who has married Mack (or at least believes she has).  Polly is the daughter of Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum (Angus Hepburn), who effectively controls all the beggars of London, and his wife, Celia Peachum (Joy Franz), both of whom are dismayed by the marriage and plot to get Mack arrested and hanged.
That is something of a complicated venture since Mack is a close friend of the constable Tiger Brown (Chad Jennings).  Mack and Tiger were at one time army comrades-in-arms and they have remained friends as Tiger provides Mack with protection from the police in exchange for a portion of Mack’s ill-gotten gains.  To complicate matters further, Mack is also carrying on an affair with Tiger’s daughter, (Kelly Pekar), who exhibits signs of carrying his child.  Nor has Mack completely severed his relationship with Jenny Diver (Ariela Morgenstern), the whore to whom he had been both lover and pimp nor, for that matter, his relationships with Jenny’s many associates.
As the play continues, Mr. and Mrs. Peachum seek to prevail upon both Tiger and the whores of London, including Jenny, to betray Mack, leading to his ultimate arrest.  To discover what happens next, you’ll have to see the show.
Despite my misgivings regarding the play’s underlying Marxist philosophy and the decision to use the Feingold translation, I must say that I still enjoyed the production.  Admittedly, it took a bit of a suspension of disbelief on my part and, to a degree, a measure of suspension of moral judgment as well – but isn’t that what theatre is all about anyway?
The performances, after all, were wonderful.  Emma Rosenthal’s voice was outstanding in the role of Polly Peachem but I also was taken with the singing of Matt Faucher (Macheath), Joy Franz (Celia Peachum), Ariela Morgenstern (Jenny Diver) and Kelly Pekar (Lucy Brown).  And Angus Hepburn was terrific in the role of Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum.
So, all told, I did enjoy the play and I imagine you will too.  And indeed, if if should turn out that you share the play’s philosophical, moral, economic and social values more than I do, you may well enjoy it even more than I did.

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