Michael Mayer was on to something when he conceptualized the rock opera American Idiot, proving that theater can be married to a punk sensibility. But fellow director Susannah Martin might argue that the intersection of punk and theater actually dates back to the 1930s, when Bertolt Brecht began experimenting with Marxist ideals and highly stylized violence. His 1928 play The Threepenny Opera was an aesthetic pastiche, driven more by social messages than character drama. Yet it wasn't shackled to a particular time or place. In Martin's version of the play — presented in collaboration with Shotgun Players — she stays true to the original script and concept, but reformats it for a modern audience. With the help of a talented cast and a couple of snide references to the current banking crisis, she manages to pull it off.
Which isn't easy, given that Brecht was so intent on subverting his own medium. Thus, his characters tend to represent ideas, rather than flesh-and-blood humans. Threepenny Opera pits arch capitalist Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum (Dave Garrett) against the antihero MacHeath (Jeff Wood), a bank robber and womanizer who manages to win the hand of Peachum's daughter Polly (Kelsey Venter). Within the first few scenes, Brecht laid a blueprint for everything he wanted to say in the subsequent acts: That romance is all the more titillating when it crosses class lines, that there's no difference between an exploiter like Peachum and a sadist like MacHeath, that spiritual upliftment doesn't exist for any of these characters. Much of the story is really a vehicle for abstract themes. Captions projected on the back wall serve to undermine the character monologues. Moreover, the story advances not through action, but through a series of plucky musical numbers.
Perhaps that's what makes it so punk. The play's seven-piece band, directed by David Möschler, includes woodwinds, contra bass, organ, guitar, banjo, trumpet, accordion, and a bass drum that actor Josh Pollock (who also plays two of MacHeath's gangster pals) handles with a pair of mallets. Nicknamed the Weillators, they play a form of aggressive cabaret music that composer Kurt Weill envisioned for a band twice as large (hence, five musicians play multiple instruments). Characterized by its signature tune, "The Ballad of Mack the Knife," Weill's score harks back to the Weimar era but was probably very punky for its time. And the cast members in this Threepenny treat it as such, moshing around the stage in their Converse, clattering dishware, jumping over furniture, and slamming into each other. Choreographer Erika Chong Shuch turns their movements into a kind of operatic violence. When MacHeath and Police Chief Tiger Brown (the excellent Danny Wolohan) sing a rousing "Cannon Song" about their stint in the British army, all the gangsters chime in. Ultimately the song devolves into a full-on brawl.
The sets are "punk" in every way. Designed by Nina Ball, they combine a West Oakland warehouse interior with furnishings that could have been excavated from Brecht's original play — such as a broken balustrade, a wall of exposed brick, a pair of arched doors, and a sign for the famed British holding company, Barclay's. Otherwise, the whole stage is splattered with graffiti and slathered in paper posters. The old, dilapidated, scavenged architecture makes this Threepenny look as though it's happening in an appropriated space. That's an ingenious touch by Ball, who is famous for creating environments that help distill storylines and amplify themes. In this case, every detail is relevant, from the broken windows to the graffiti messages ("Back off," "We are your children," "Hands are here to make things. Hands are here to break things.").
Choreography, music, and set design are what really propel The Threepenny Opera forward, since it's not a play that lends itself to character acting. Brecht conceived of theater as a pedagogical tool and form of social advancement, rather than catharsis, so he purposefully scraped all emotion out of his stories before putting them onstage. Martin preserved his weird, disjointed structure and clunky deus ex machina in her rendition. Yet she chose to hire actors who are known for their emotional depth and force of personality: pretty, soprano-voiced Venter, who looks like a filly among beggars; El Beh, who morphs from a street kid into a pouty prostitute; the ever-wonderful Beth Wilmurt, donning a black wig to play a goth hooker named Jenny; and Wolohan, whose Tiger Brown is addled and endearing. They devote themselves wholeheartedly to a script that turns into a three-hour song-and-dance marathon, with social commentary mixed in. Brecht's description of his work as "epic theater" was no understatement.
Threepenny does indeed feel three hours long by the end, but it's still a dizzying production. There's something to be said for a 75-year-old opera whose story still has currency, and whose theme gets repurposed for ad campaigns. That's not exactly punk rock. But it's definitely timeless.
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