Posted by: strugglesome | October 14, 2010

Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?: The Arden Theatre’s Threepenny Opera

Much like coffee, port, or cigarettes, Bertolt Brecht is, for many, an acquired taste. Upon primary exposure he may appear bitter, pungent, and you might start to cough a little. But, after time and experience you find yourself craving those tastes, regardless of how much they may assault the senses. This may lead to an angry spiral of shame and guilt and an appearance on an episode of Intervention, or you may just end up like me and drink approximately five cups of coffee a day and unashamedly like the work of Bertolt Brecht. Either way, it’s always worth remembering as you step into a theater to see a work by Brecht that this man was not particularly interested in pleasing the crowd. This is not to say that Brecht’s work was intended as an assault on the audience (he’s no Artaud), but Brecht himself always said that his aim was not to make the audience feel, but to make them think. And, to be fair, I certainly did do a lot of thinking during the Arden Theatre’s production of The Threepenny Opera, a musical written by Brecht and Kurt Weill and based off of the 1728 sensation The Beggar’s Opera, written by John Gay. Unfortunately, that wasn’t always a good thing. I personally thought about this play quite a bit, so much so that I began to wonder if the minds behind this production had given it the same courtesy.

While Gay’s operetta was a cheeky smash hit inspiring Hogarth paintings and delighting a nation, it was also deemed the anti-opera, a saga of the lower classes and a deftly created piece of political satire. From this rich bed of subjects Brecht and Weill re-imagined a sleazy sketchy landscape of prostitution and poverty, which they first produced in 1928, and while two centuries had come and gone, the significance and relevance of the piece hadn’t changed. Nor are the questions and messages of this play rendered archaic today in 2010. Poverty still exists, as does hypocrisy and greed, and many still feel as Brecht wrote “The law was solely created to exploit those who do not understand it”.The central thesis of this play, which, like any good Brechtian leitmotif is related to the audience with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, is that morality is the luxury of the well-fed. The poor may be amoral, vicious, and even straight up evil, but at least they aren’t hypocritical.

Staged in a environment vaguely reminiscent of the fire-escape scenes from West Side Story, Tom Gleeson’s set combines flights of pipe-iron stairs and landings, an under-used catwalk, a visible audience and a small raised playing space.  Luridly lit by Thom Weaver’s effective lighting design, both set and lights seem in perfect harmony, and they certainly have provided the audience and the actors with a very interesting and well crafted environment. In deference to Brechtian traditions, the seams of the production are widely apparent, sandbags swing from the ceiling, backstage help is subtly visible, and signs are everywhere, usually in old-movie style projections created by Jorge Cousineau. Snippits of plotline also are projected onto the exposed brick of the back of the set as they are declaimed by various actors, though they are rendered less effective by the texture and color of the wall. The same fate meets the grotesque images of beggars displayed later in the show, though it doesn’t do as much to dampen the intentionally horrifying effect of seeing so much human misery.

At the start of the show a curtain covers just the playing space and the audience, leaving most of the set (and some of the actors seated at dressing tables) still visible. The rest of the play then becomes a game of “fight the curtain” as it swings in and out and actors have to force their way through it to deliver their musical contributions. In a somewhat confusing move, Nolen has some of the songs being sung caberet style in front of the curtain, and some of them song more naturalistically on and around the raised platform and stairways. This sense of fusion confusion haunts the piece; at times the actors address the audience directly, at other times the scenes are played like melodrama, at other times like realism. The merging of all of these styles weakens the efficiency of each of them, and choices that would have been strong are made less so when considered as a whole. While there are moments of excellent staging and choreography; the Act 2 finale and the smoothly sleek interplay during Polly and Macheath’s wedding stand as a strong examples; the lack of a choreographer does make itself felt, especially with a cast this large.

The plotline of this piece is fairly simple. Mr. Peachum (the excellent and wryly comedic Scott Greer) is the head of a firm of beggars, a Slumdog Millionaire style guildmaster of sorts who runs begging like a gang and demands a cut of each employee’s daily income. Peachum has as his partner in not-quite-crime his bright and boozy wife, Mrs. Peachum (the fabulous Mary Martello).  In contrast to Christian doctrine, the audience is repeatedly assured that poverty isn’t some kind of badge of honor, and while the meek might someday inherit the earth it is the ruthless and the tricky who currently have the world in their possession. And the trickiest and most ruthless landlord of all is the anti-hero of this piece, a figure of big-band fame and world renown, crime baron Macheath (Terence Archie). Macheath has made the fatal mistake of pursuing Polly Peachum (Victoria Frings) down the aisle and straight into the bedroom, much to her parent’s chagrin. The disapproval of the Peachum pair mixed with Macheath’s own proclivity towards promiscuity lands our Macky in the clink, and despite his bromance with Tiger Brown (the adorable and comical Anthony Lawton) and the devotion of Brown’s debauched daughter, Lucy (a likable and talented Liz Filios) it seems that our hero has run out of luck. But in order to conform to the laws of narrative and the dictates of the public, Brecht and Weill (and, for that matter, Gay) all allow Macheath a royal pardon and a title as a peer of the realm. Just what we need, another completely corrupt leader.

In theory Macheath is a kind of Iago, a Richard the 3rd, a Nathan Detroit if you will (after all, this is a musical). He does terrible despicable things, abuses women, kills men, steals candy from babies (even though you really shouldn’t be giving infants high amounts of sugar), and yet we love him because he is, despite it all, completely lovable.  In practice Archie’s Macheath is, frankly, not. Vocally very strong, physically attractive, well costumed, sure, but absolutely unsympathetic and played virtually without dynamics or levels. While he has moments of charm in Cannon Song, the truth is he has his best moments when lost in his fury in A Call From The Grave. Instead of a cheeky witty charmer Archie plays Macheath as an angry benevolent dictator, a choice that grants him a lot of power, but leaves him with no strategies and no room to play. As a result, the audience find themselves watching the continual devotion and love lavished on this character and asking themselves why.

To be fair, it’s possible that Archie is also suffering by comparison, as the women of this cast are truly excellent. Frings as Polly is spectacular, layered, funny, devious and smart, she conquers difficult numbers like Barbara Song and Jealousy Duet effortlessly, and because of Rosemarie E. Mckelvey’s fantastic costumes she looks amazing doing so. Martello’s Mrs. Peachum croons The Ballad of Sexual Imperative with all the talent and appeal a nightclub singer, and Rachel Wallace’s Jenny combines a knock-out voice with moments of true vulnerability and heartache in A Pimp’s Tango and The Socrates Song. The other women of the cast who trade roles as whores, gang members and beggars, are also strong, which only draws into contrast the strength of the actresses against one of the other take-home messages of this piece is that in life women always get the shaft. Wait, I mean, women get screwed, I mean, oh, well, it’s a Brecht play, if you aren’t talking dirty you probably aren’t doing it right.

It’s always worth seeing Brecht performed, especially because given how challenging his pieces are, intellectually, logistically, artistically, not everyone has the courage to take them on. And even if the production itself falters, the message still remains, to give us all something to think about. Any production that can do that should be seen as a compelling one, and this particular production is no exception.  The Arden Theatre’s The Threepenny Opera will be running until November 7th. Tickets are available here.

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