Beggars and Losers

The Threepenny Opera counts the cost of human capital; Blues for an Alabama Sky clocks a red-hot minute

The Southern Theater, which turns 90 this year, is a study in architectural decay. Its exposed brick walls are crumbling and the paint that once brightened them has faded and begun to flake unceremoniously. Even the massive proscenium arch seems to sag under the weight of a century. This place, in all its decomposing grandeur, has the ambiance of a crypt. It is also, perhaps, an ideal setting for The Threepenny Opera, Bertolt Brecht's dissertation on humanity's endless capacity for depravity. The decay in the case of the play is that of Victorian London, a half-lit Hades where grifters and whores gorge at the trough of sin. Lest we take heart in temporal distance, though, Brecht reminds us that their rot is also our own.

Written in 1928 in collaboration with the composer Kurt Weill and debuted in the smoky halls of Weimar-era Berlin, the "opera for beggars" is often considered the most precise articulation of Brecht's Weltanschauung, nicely summarized by one of the play's Dickensian degenerates: "The world is poor, and man's a shit." On the success of the opera, Brecht would eventually become the poster-mensch for the theater of social protest--although one suspects that he often felt society barely worth protesting. Even before the advent of the Second World War, however, Brecht saw a society that had spun off its moral axis. That the world had not yet realized this fact was to him the wickedest joke imaginable.

Harlem nights: Marie-Françoise Theodore and Lester Purry of Penumbra's Blues for an Alabama Sky
Harlem nights: Marie-Françoise Theodore and Lester Purry of Penumbra's Blues for an Alabama Sky

Appropriately, Frank Theatre director Wendy Knox and set designer Steven Rhode have dressed the Southern like hell's foyer. Ratty crimson drapery and scaffolding litter the stage. Naked red light barely pierces the gloom. As the opera commences, actors rise silently from the audience and slip in from unseen entrances to take their places. They stare for a long minute into the crowd with dull eyes framed by clownish white makeup, then break into bedlam. A mob beats a man to death. A couple couples listlessly atop a desk. In one corner a man throttles a woman. In another a gentleman receives a Lewinsky from a prostitute. In short, they silently demonstrate every conceivable permutation of human degradation. In this world, predator and prey are indistinguishable: They are all grist in the mill of industrialism.

When the chaos has cleared, the piano player (Michael Koerner) takes his seat and breaks into the opera's signature tune, "Mack the Knife." With its jaunty melody and gruesome subject (a Jack the Ripper type plying his trade), the song exemplifies the discord of the entire business; lurking behind every note is the threat of a switchblade in the guts. The song's protagonist, a vicious hood named Macheath (Steven Hendrickson), has eloped with Polly Peachum (Heidi Fellner). Polly is the daughter of Mr. Peachum (Martin Ruben), a loathsome codger who works as a talent agent for panhandlers (à la Oliver Twist). Showing off a row of living mannequins to a new recruit, he explains the basic types of human misery, "calculated to move the human heart." His industry is misery, and he is a captain.

Polly's surrogate family is hardly more attractive. After spiriting Polly off to a stable, Mack and his gang (Nick O'Donnell, Kurt Anderson, Mark Rhein, and Lonny Smith) stage a wedding debauch with stolen furniture. As entertainment, Polly herself jumps on the table to sing "The Song of the Pirate Girl," a ditty that begins quite nicely and ends with the burning of London and a mountain of broken bodies. The tune is repeated later by Jenny (Ruth Mackenzie), a dancehall girl with a heart of ash (the prostitutes also discuss their "earning power," giving new euphemistic meaning to the phrase, "making ends meet"). Macheath may be a murderous rake, but his women seem to have antifreeze running through their veins. Polly, Jenny, and their rival, Lucy Brown (Molly Sue McDonald), spend their time plotting, hissing, and poisoning one another. They are in every way the equals of their wicked male counterparts.

Brecht's nihilism, which is diametrically opposed to our current notions of individual potency, is also a great challenge for actors trained to elicit an audience's empathy. We are not meant to care about these degenerates any more than we might passing the same on the sidewalk outside the theater. And when we find ourselves loathing them, we are meant to recognize the monstrous in ourselves. Frank Theatre's cast uniformly proves equal to the task of alienating us; by the play's bait-and-switch ending, we are not only happy to see Macheath hanged but wish the same fate for the rest. Hendrickson, dressed like the Joker from Batman and just as manipulative, acts the part of the consummate non-hero. McDonald, resolving every melisma into a reptilian hiss, plays Lucy as a bug-eyed sociopath. As the victim of Macheath's romantic treachery, Polly could easily be the play's most sympathetic character. As depicted by Fellner, however, she is nearly inhuman--twitching, in fact, like a marionette on strings (Brecht, perhaps, directing his pawns from the beyond).

This adaptation of The Threepenny Opera, by Marc Blitzstein, is often criticized for diluting the wicked wit of Brecht's German original (which is itself adapted from an 18th-century British opera). If Frank Theatre's production is any evidence, however, enough bile, Brechtian absurdity, and gallows humor remains to communicate its message clearly. Without empathy, Brecht suggests, a human being is garbage. That he refuses to give us anyone with whom to empathize may be a final laugh at our expense.

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