A BEGGAR DRESSED IN TATTERS stalks on stage. The spotlight shines bleakly on him; the rest of the stage is dark. Sneering at the audience--suspicious, perhaps scornful--he spits and suddenly doubles over with a hyena-like laugh. He straightens abruptly and with a sweeping arm, signals to cut the light. His laughter echoes eerily through the darkness after he has left the stage. Ten seconds have elapsed.
With this jarring first image, the current production of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera captures the cardinal principle of epic theater: a rigid separation between the stage and spectator. This separation, or alienation, prevents the spectator from identifying with the characters. Brechtian theater presents man for scrutiny, to entertain and instruct the spectator. Didactic in intent, it forces him to observe, make decisions, and act on them. Under R.J. Cutler's direction, Threepenny Opera shines with all the power and excitement inherent in Epic theater.
In Threepenny Opera, the most enduring example of Brecht's epic theater, Brecht shows how closely the capitalist business interests relate to the criminal element. The entrepreneur, J.J. Peachum (Ernest Kearns), trafficks in sentiment. He outfits an army of "the poorest of the poor" with begging clothes and districts of operation. Aware of the efforts required to soften a man's heart to the point where he will part with his money, he believes, "no one can make his own misery sound convincing;" he has built an empire on this statement.
Captain Macheath (John Bellucci), known as Mac the Knife, holds sway over the criminal elements. He marries Peachum's daughter Polly (Daphne de Marneffe), without her parents' consent. Enraged, Peachum and his wife (Miriam Shmir) plot to have him hanged. Mrs. Peachum enlists the help of Mac's whores to trap him, one of whom, Low-Dive Jenny (Martha Hackett) once lived with him. Mr. Peachum bullies Tiger Brown (Christopher Randolph), the Sheriff of London and Mac's old army buddy, to arrest Macheath.
The characters' presentation determines the effectiveness of Brecht's message, as assignment this production maintains overall. Ernest Kearns' Mr. Peachum has all the disgusting elements of the petit-bourgeois, and Kearns presents Peachum with a clear understanding of the action-provoking role. Because of the flatness with which Kearns delivers statements sympathetic to Brecht--"The law was made for the rich to exploit those who don't understand it"--he maintains distance from his character. In his dryness and his logic, his running about and his posing, Kearns reduces the "Beggar's Friend" to a common demoninator, strips him down to the essential. In the simple statement, "Justice gives way to humanity," Kearns presents to the audience a fait-accompli which they must now judge themselves. In the same way, he hands over Peachum.
John Bellucci's Macheath is frequently too endearing a rogue. Bellucci fails to put sufficient distance between Macheath and the audience, even when addressing them directly, as in the Cannon Song, a duet Macheath sings with Tiger Brown. Bellucci's classical, stylized acting makes Macheath an adventurer, a guise sympathetic to the audience. But the actor strengthens in the second half of the opera, after Macheath has made his decision to visit the whores on Thursday as usual, knowing the police are after him. He acquires the stature that comes with a man headed compulsively to his doom: Bellucci dispenses with Romanticism, as Macheath himself is stripped by circumstance.
Each of the actresses presents her character in an individual style impeccably suited to that character's function. Daphne de Marneffe gives Polly Peachum just enough soiled innocence. With a simple shrug, de Marneffe gives over Polly Peachum for the spectator to study, to chew up and to spit right back. Martha Hackett gives the strongest female presence of the production Artfully establishing the distance between herself, the character, and the audience, Hackett states clearly that most human conflict between fantasy and reality, between love and money. Her husky voice capturing the harsh sweetness of Weill's music evokes a visceral pleasure in the spectator and, consequently, makes the lyrics more significant.
Mrs. Peachum, at first made to seem farcical, acquires a
The overall conception of the production is weakened by director R.J. Cutler's difficult struggle for a compromise between the Theater of Alienation and the Theater of Empathy. While well-acted, this production of Threepenny Opera lacks a social awareness of the play's context intrinsic to the epic theater. As if fearing to offend an audience too used to pleasurable theater and unwilling to be taught, Cutler has dismantled most of the instructive apparatus of Brecht's theater. But for the second Threepenny Finale, the placards bearing song and scene titles--the visual, literal representation necessary for didacticism--are wanting. While the narrator (Lars-Gunnar Wigemar), a ballad-singer, stalks about the stage describing subsequent scenes, this is not enough. He simply reduces the value of the lesson to be learned to the level of a nice story. The didacticism is lost to sentiment.
This conceptual schizophrenia emerges in Alex Brooks' set design: neither minimalist, nor realist, but rather an uneasy mixture of the two. Brooks seems to have mistaken epic literalness, which arises from social connotation, with the notion of approximating reality. While the set should be merely suggested, minimal and stripped of reality, the props must be realistic and literal. This idea, inherent to the epic, becomes curiously reversed in Brooks' design. The sets strive for realistic representation, as in Newgate prison. Props, on the other hand, crowd the production, devoid of social significance. What, for example, is the purpose of the toilet so prominently displayed in Macheath's cell, but to elicit a weak laugh when he sits on it, saying, "One must live well to know what living is." Why must a bed, clearly relevent to Macheath's character, be lowered majestically, with all the sensational aspect of a Deus ex machina, rather than be wheeled on or revealed? This confusion of prupose is at the core of this conflict between the classical and epic theater.
On the other hand, Alex
The visible orchestra emphasizes the sublime marriage of Brecht's text to Weill's music. The two independent elements complementing each other set forth the positions and ideas presented in each, most notably in the ballads. The ballads, more than the text itself, state the characters' situations objectively. Cutler's staging for these ballads underscores their epic nature; they are the strongest cohesive element of the production. The Second Threepenny Finale: What Keeps Mankind Alive?, which closes the second act, encapsulates the message of the play, "Food is the first thing. Morals follow on." Rarely has the persistence of man's struggle against man been so strikingly captured with words and music. The strength of Bellucci and Hackett, addressing the audience with this particular account of original sin, is electrifying. Nothing more is needed to drive the message through the spectator's heart than the voices of the hardened tart and her procurer, accusing yet beseeching, against the panorama of human misery. Tempted to condemn them, the audience finds itself at fault; it is a hard lesson to take, but a lesson it is, nonetheless. It stands as one of the high points of the entire production.
The erratic, often jarring orchestral performance, under Frederick Q. Freyer's direction, communicates Weill's epic music with clarity and vigor. Freyer's lyrical arrangement faithfully retains the social gest of the original. Occasionally, he loses control of his players' enthusiasm, and the music overwhelms the singers. Yet the vitality of his conducting and exuberance of the music itself, leaping across the stage to strike the audience's nervous system, adds integrity to the production where the set failed.
The production resounds with vitality, despite this disparity between the epic structure and presentation of Threepenny Opera, and the classical rather than literal use of the stage
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