Monday, April 7, 2014

A Threepenny Opera Con Brio

Photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia

Productions of The Threepenny Opera usually stumble over the paradox that though it’s a great play, technically it’s not a very good one. The script by Bertolt Brecht is massively overwritten, with long passages of dialogue that no translation from the German (I’ve encountered several) has succeeded in rendering without awkwardness. The comic scenes may have been partly improvised in rehearsal when the show was first mounted in Berlin in 1928, or else Brecht may have built them around the vaudevillian talents of his cast; now the exchanges between the gangster Macheath (Mack the Knife) and his gang, Mackie and his pal, Chief of Police Tiger Brown, Brown and Jonathan Peachum, the ruthless boss of all of London’s beggars, and Peachum and his equally devious wife just sit on the page, challenging actors to figure out how to make them funny. Yet the play, a raucous social satire that updates John Gay’s eighteenth-century satirical burlesque The Beggar’s Opera, is vibrant, theatrical to the gills, and every time the action pauses for one of Brecht and Kurt Weill’s songs, you know you’re watching and listening to one of the signal achievements in modern theatre. Weill’s music is thrilling: glittering and acid, robust and plaintive, simultaneously redolent of the music hall, the salon and the jazz club.

Mary Beth Peil & F. Murray Abraham (Photo: Kevin Thomas Garcia)
Like many English-speaking fans of the score, I was introduced to it through the Marc Blitzstein translation first heard during the tremendously popular off-Broadway run of 1954, four years after Weill’s death. Blitzstein was subsequently criticized for softening the vulgarity and the guttural sound of Brecht’s German, and for many years it was fashionable to use the version by Ralph Manheim and John Willett that was commissioned by the New York Shakespeare Festival at Lincoln Center in 1976 (Raúl Juliá played Mack). But though it may approach the tone of the original more closely, the Manheim and Willett is unpoetic and tough to sing; for all its flaws, I prefer the Blitzstein, which the latest New York production, at the Atlantic Theater Company, returns to. (For my money, Jeremy Sams did the best translation of the lyrics to date, for London’s Donmar Warehouse in 1994; the original cast CD, with Tom Hollander as Mack, is a revelation for Threepenny aficionados.)

I had a fine time at the Atlantic Theater Company Threepenny, which was directed and choreographed by Martha Clarke and comes in, miraculously, at just over two hours instead of the usual three. This is a result of a combination of expert pacing, clever scene shifts, one intermission instead of two (you get over the oddness of having an interval in the middle of act two and the “Second Threepenny Finale” performed approximately one-third of the way through the second half), and most judicious cutting of the text. Clarke takes her scissors to the book, not to the score; she even interpolates one song, “Ballad of the Drowned Girl,” from Brecht and Weill’s Berliner Requiem, for Lucy Brown (Lilli Cooper), to sing in act one. (The only piece of music excised from the score is the reprise of “Ballad of Mack the Knife” at the end – and I did miss it.)

The economy extends to the look and feel of the show. Directors tend to make the mistake of overproducing Threepenny, in big arenas that undermine its likable scrappiness, dwarf its Berlin-kabarett qualities and blunt its razor edge. The Linda Gross Theater, the Atlantic’s main space on West 20th Street, is intimate; the skillful fifteen-member acting ensemble, most of whom play two or three roles, fill it with the help of seven superb musicians who perform upstage, in front of a distorted mirror, a nod to Brecht and Weill’s most celebrated legatee, the Kander-Ebb musical Cabaret. Here Clarke substitutes movement, sometimes quite simple, for traditional musical-theatre (or ballet) choreography. And though some of her ideas don’t work  - and when they don’t work they’re distracting, like the sex-play of the two whorehouse couples during the “Tango Ballad” – the overall style does. I was caught up by the color and drama of the action around the “Ballad of Mack the Knife” at the top by the Street Singer (John Kelly, pale-faced and straggly-haired), and even when the staging got messy in spots I never felt I disengaged from what was happening on stage. All of Clarke’s visual collaborators contribute to the hand-stitched quality of the show: Robert Israel, whose antique-shop set provides Clarke with levels and alcoves to plant actors in; Donna Zakowska, whose costumes are witty reminders of the era in which Threepenny was first presented; and Christopher Akerlind, who designed the sometimes magical expressionistic lighting.

Michael Park & Laura Osnes (Photo: Kevin Thomas Garcia)
Because Weill’s wife, Lotte Lenya, created the role of Jenny the whore in 1928 and played it again at the Theatre de Lys in 1954, and because her recordings of her husband’s songs set the standard for many years, it’s often assumed that the best singers for any production of this play are actors who can carry a tune but don’t have melodic voices. But that distinction can be misleading: actually Lenya (who later played Frau Schneider in the Broadway production of Cabaret) had an impeccable ear, and the most expressive versions I’ve heard of Weill’s songs are by the soprano Teresa Stratas. The only non-singer in the Atlantic production is F. Murray Abraham, who plays Peachum, and he struggles with some of the music, especially the “Third Threepenny Finale,” which is damnably difficult to sing. Abraham gives a somewhat muted performance, while Mary Beth Peil (Jackie Florrick on the TV series The Good Wife), as Mrs. Peachum, is a little overstated but more fun to watch. The three younger women – Laura Osnes as Polly Peachum, Lilli Cooper as Lucy, and Sally Murphy as Jenny – all have trained vocal instruments and use them masterfully.

Michael Park is up to both the vocal and the dramatic requirements of the role of Macheath; you have no trouble believing that he’s the psychopathic subject of the “Ballad of Mack the Knife.” What Park lacks is charisma, though after seeing more than one performer with a rock-star persona attempt the role – like Sting in the ill-fated 1989 Broadway revival – I know the limitations of going that route. Rick Holmes plays Tiger Brown as dignified and conservative; when he arrives at Peachum’s with his top hat and a pair of specs at the end of his nose, he seems less the butt of a joke and more a representative of a London institution. He’s very good, and his duet with Mack, “Army Song” (with Mack’s gang providing hand-made percussion), is one of the highlights of the show. But then, there are many of those, including Osnes’s rendering of “Barbara Song” and her duet with Cooper, “Jealousy Duet,” outside Macheath’s jail cell, in which the staging and the lighting give an expressionistic emphasis to the physical differences between his two rival wives, diminutive Polly and brassy Lucy. (That Polly turns out to be far less delicate a figure than she seems is one of Brecht’s best jokes, and the inclusion of the “Ballad of the Drowned Girl” to comment on Lucy’s predicament after Mack impregnates and abandons her suggests that she has a more melancholy side.) And Sally Murphy’s “Pirate Jenny” is the highlight of highlights. Weill and Brecht wrote the song for Polly to sing as an entertainment at her wedding to Mack, but the Theatre de Lys production gave it to Lenya for one of the whorehouse scenes, and in the Blitzstein translation the shift makes a more democratic division of songs between these two female characters. (Polly gets the love duet with Mack as well as “Polly’s Song,” which has the most gorgeous melody line in the score.) Murphy looks like a sorrowing, moist-eyed ghost, and dramatically she does more with the song, perhaps, than anyone since Lenya. Later, in “Solomon Song,” wearing black silk, she hugs the wall while her silhouette pools behind her. The cliché that there’s not supposed to be any emotion in Brecht has never seemed so wrong-headed.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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