For Frank Theatre, performing at the Southern is a bit like coming home.
The theater company spent most of its early years there, and has more recently made several strong returns to the West Bank venue, including last year's triumphant Misterman. Now Frank is back at the Southern with a thoroughly entertaining production of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera.
Frank Theatre's founder and director, Wendy Knox, has visited (and revisited) Brecht throughout the company's history, from Mother Courage to an earlier production of The Threepenny Opera. The German creator's fierce, honest approach to theater matches Knox's own, and she relishes the opportunity to challenge our perceptions of what makes "entertainment."
Brecht's influence is more visible than ever, as works that break the fourth wall — and feature main characters who are less than savory to polite society — have grown in popularity over the past few decades. But what a lot of these productions do not have is Brecht's razor-sharp insight into how the world really works.
Set in the seedy underbelly of 19th-century London — with the ever seedier middle and upper classes looming above — The Threepenny Opera focuses on Macheath (Bradley Greenwald), a thief, scoundrel, and philanderer who is able to do pretty much as he pleases, as long as he lines the pockets of corrupt coppers and other officials.
It's a sweet-and-sour kind of show, as Brecht's tough politics and uncompromising view of human nature run headlong into Weill's jazzy numbers. It's no surprise that "Mack the Knife" has become a standard, but it's sobering when we're reminded that the song describes a man with one foot on the gallows.
Macheath's downfall comes when his ever-wandering eye falls on Polly Peachum, the daughter of a successful businessman (played by Gary Briggle underneath a comically large mustache) who rules the beggars of London with an iron fist. After Macheath and Polly carry out a secret wedding, Mr. Peachum declares war. He finds an ally in Jenny Driver (Molly Sue McDonald), another one of Macheath's lovers, who is as interested in the promised financial payoff as she is in getting a jilted lover's vengeance.
Macheath is the kind of role Greenwald was born to play. The versatile actor has the vocal chops to pull off the depth and breadth of Kurt Weill's score, while his strong acting instincts craft a character both engaging and repellent, a perfect blend for the Bertolt Brecht script. It always feels like Greenwald's Macheath is a few steps ahead of the competition, that is until his inability to leave his empire gets the better of him.
The balance of the company puts in strong performances, especially McDonald, who fully embodies Jenny's inner conflict, using it to fuel some absolutely knockout moments in the second act. Elsewhere, local legend Vern Sutton gets his turn in the spotlight, especially in the vital role of the Street Singer, who opens the show with Macheath's signature tune, "Mack the Knife."
Returning to the Southern isn't just a way for Frank Theatre to commemorate its history. The venue's rough-hewn walls fit perfectly with the broken-down and unseemly vibe of the production, from the mix of tattered finery in the costumes (Greenwald, for example, is decked out in leather pants, knee-high boots, and an overcoat that looks like it has gone to seed) to the rough and ready sets and stark lighting. Frank has found a tried and true combination in Brecht and the Southern Theater.