Monday, March 19, 2018

Skeleton Crew and The Threepenny Opera: The Working Class and the Underclass

Toccarra Cash and Jonathan Louis Dent in Skeleton Crew. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew is performing at Huntington Theatre’s second space in the Calderwood Pavilion, and indeed there are productions currently or scheduled all over the country, including elsewhere in New England. (Dorset Theatre in Vermont has announced it as part of its summer season.) It’s no surprise. Morisseau’s drama, about four Detroit auto factory workers in 2008 dealing with the imminent closing of their plant, is a finely crafted piece of work with distinct, complex characters and plausibly shifting relationships. And under Megan Sandberg-Zakian’s direction, the Huntington production is vivified by four splendid actors, staking out Wilson Chin’s subtle, grounded set: the plant’s locker room-cum-kitchen and break room, with an expressionistic backdrop of elevated car doors that swing into action during scene shifts. Adam Honoré’s lighting and the character touches in Ari Fulton’s costume design also merit commendation.

The recent play that comes to mind when you watch Skeleton Crew is Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, which moved from the Public Theatre to a Broadway house last season: Nottage handles the downsizing of a factory in Reading, Pennsylvania in 2000. I liked Sweat, too, and it has a broader reach than Morisseau’s work, because race enters the scenario in a way that it never does in Skeleton Crew, where all of the characters are African American. (We assume the plant owner is white, but the play doesn’t engage in a discussion of the role of race in the socioeconomic realities of the working class in 2008,  though it wouldn’t take much of a push to turn it in that direction. That’s not a criticism; Skeleton Crew doesn’t make you long for the play Morisseau didn’t write.) But Sweat is a social-problem melodrama, and Morisseau never enters the realm of melodrama for a moment. Even the news that Faye (Patricia R. Floyd), the senior member of the quartet, who has chalked up twenty-nine years on the floor, is homeless and has been covertly sleeping on the couch of the break room, and a silent scene where we see Dez (Jonathan Louis Dent) remove a revolver from his locker and slips it into his backpack don’t lead to theatrical explosions. Nottage’s play contains bursts of poetry, and there’s nothing in Morisseau’s writing that comes up to the level of Alison Wright’s monologue in Sweat about the vanished dreams of her hippie youth. But then, Morisseau doesn’t want to draw our attention to the writing. She provides only one big speech, where Reggie (Maurice Emmanuel Parent), the foreman, relates to Faye how close he came to punching out their boss. Most of the revelations are deeply embedded in the text so that you work them out in your head. When Dez, who’s a young man, is under suspicion of stealing from the plant and Reggie discovers the gun, Dez’s only explanation is that it’s a dangerous neighborhood. We recall that he’s made it a point to walk Shanita (Toccara Cash), his pregnant co-worker, to her car at the end of the shift every day, but Morisseau doesn’t bother to remind us. And though we learn early on that Faye is gay and we know that Reggie half-grew up in her house, it’s only in act two, when she makes a passing allusion to the heartbreaking loss of his mother, that we realize the two women were lovers.

The roles are fairly evenly divided but Faye, who wears her circumstances (including a bout with cancer) with the easy familiarity of a tragic heroine yet refuses to present them as a badge of honor, dominates the play. Floyd, whom I recognized from a recurring role as a judge on Law and Order, gives a performance of masterful understatement that nonetheless accentuates this woman’s different kinds of strength – physical, emotional and moral. Cash gives Shanita a tough-dame, working-class sassiness undergirded with vulnerability. Typically, Morisseau doesn’t make a big deal of the moment when, alone in the locker room, she breaks down in tears, and there’s no follow-up, but we get the idea that this uncharacteristic emotional release is linked to her fears for the immediate future. (Dez jokes about Shanita’s baby’s daddy but she never says who it is, and it becomes increasingly clear that he’s not in the picture.) Cash and Dent have fun with their characters’ flirtatious banter and use the rhythms of romantic comedy to build the feelings underneath it, which surface in the dramatically rich second act.

Dent is so comfortable in the skin of the streetwise Dez that when Reggie demands to search his pack, his refusal to give permission, which registers as a sort of physical lockdown, has tremendous punch. Dent gives clarity to this young man’s obstinacy: it does him no good (as both the women try to get him to see), but it’s an expression of integrity – an integrity that makes the accusation of theft impossible for us to find persuasive. When Faye insists to Reggie later that she’s sure Dez is no thief because she knows him, we feel that we, too, know him well enough by that point to second her assertion – and that’s on Dent. The performance that comes closest to stylization is Parent’s as Reggie, who turns out to be the most fiery of the four characters, the one who struggles the most with his anger. But there isn’t a scene where you don’t believe him, and his second-act monologue has the power of weeks, perhaps months, of emotion held in check and then released suddenly. It seems to me that this gifted quartet is acting with the mix of confidence and joy that come from knowing that the playwright has given them characters who make sense from the inside out.

Renee Tatum (centre) and Christopher Burchett (to her left), with members of the company of the Boston Lyric Opera, in The Threepenny Opera. (Photo: Liza Voll Photography)

When, after years of devotion to Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, I finally heard the original 1928 recordings of some of the songs, they came as a wonderful shock: the honky-tonk sound of the band brought out the grit in the German lyrics as well as the dissonances in the music. Still, I’m of two minds about how the songs should be performed. Lotte Lenya, the original Jenny (and Weill’s wife), was an actress, not a singer, and her versions of these songs and other Weill selections are justly celebrated, but she may be the exception rather than the rule. To date the best performances I’ve ever heard of the Brecht-Weill repertoire are by the great coloratura soprano Teresa Stratas, who recorded two albums of Weill in the 1980s. And though I get the complaint that the 1954 English translation of Threepenny by Marc Blitzstein, underplay the scrappy vulgarity of Brecht’s lyrics, I confess that I haven’t been wild about any of the subsequent ones except for Jeremy Sams’s for the Donmar Warehouse revival in London in 1994. (There’s a fantastic recording of it, but unhappily the script is not available because copyright problems have kept it out of  print.) Blitzstein didn’t do the first English version; what is listed as an “adaptation” of Brecht’s libretto by Gifford Cochran and Jerrold Krimsky  played very briefly on Broadway in 1933 – twelve measly performances. But it was Blitzstein’s that helped to bring the musical to prominence when it was produced at the Theatre de Lys in New York in 1954, where it rang up 2,611 performances.

The new production by Boston Lyric Opera uses Michael Feingold’s translation, which, like Eric Bentley’s and Mannheim and Willett’s before him, is so dense and unmusical that it presents unnecessarily steep challenges for singers. (Blitzstein may have tamed down the Brecht, but he was a musician.) Still, never having seen the show performed by an opera company, I was anxious to hear how a stage filled with trained voices might render Weill’s peerless score. And I can’t complain about the musicianship of the principals in this Threepenny, though to be frank I found the orchestra under David Angus’s direction lackluster. (They seemed to gather more conviction as the evening proceeded, but the overture, at least on opening night, was decidedly listless.) The biggest musical problem is that the principals, especially the four women – Kelly Kaduce as Polly Peachum, Michelle Trainor as Mrs. Peachum, Renée Tatum as Jenny Diver and Chelsea Basler as Lucy Brown – haven’t figured out how to make the transition from the operatic approach they’re obviously used to and the Sprechstimme (“talk-singing”) tradition that Weill and Brecht pioneered, so the transitions are clumsy. It doesn’t help that all four give terrible dramatic performances, though they’re so consistently bad that it’s hard not to lay most of the blame on the director, James Darrah. Each has chosen one or two dim ideas and sticks to them relentlessly. Trainor’s Mrs. P. is shrill and cackles like a Halloween witch. (She’s been elected to deliver the pre-show caution to the audience to turn off all electronic devices, and the night I saw it she chewed so much scenery before the play had even begun that I wanted to hide under my seat.) Tatum’s Jenny is a surly sex doll. Basler’s Lucy is loud and bombastic.

The most disastrous choice is Kaduce’s – to play Polly as an enervated, slutty punk. Brecht’s trademark irony depends on the careful reversal of expectations; he presents the archetype we expect and want and then pulls the rug out from under us. That irony is lost, of course, if Polly isn’t demure and genteel when we first meet her and then reveals herself to be capable of running Macheath’s gang in his absence (and bullying its members when they resist the idea of truckling under to a woman). That seems pretty obvious to me – it’s Brecht 101. By the time we meet Polly, Darrah has already made the same mistake with Mack: during “The Ballad of Mack the Knife” (here sung by Daniel Belcher, who plays Tiger Brown), while the narrative enumerates the activities of London’s most notorious criminal, Christopher Burchett’s Macheath sits on the floor downstage right with blood all over him, looking malevolent. The way Brecht wrote the play, when we finally meet Mack, in Act I Scene 2 (after a lengthy Scene 1 in Peachum’s shop), he’s a charmer who comes across as no worse than a seductive scamp: the tension between what we know about him and the image he presents supplies the irony. Not here. But then, the BLO Threepenny doesn’t offer much evidence that Darrah has figured out what to do with this material. There are a few amusing vaudevillian flourishes, like the wedding-night sex between Polly and Mack delivered by the two actors with only their heads peeking through the traveling half-curtain – one Brechtian device Darrah sticks to. (He’s eliminated the intertitles, but so did Rufus Norris in the vibrant National Theatre revival of 2016.) But why has he staged the opening with the ensemble standing like statues around the stage while the Street Singer mimes killing them one by one?

Of course I sympathize with the difficulty of designing and staging an elaborate three-hour musical-theatre piece that has to be slotted into the Huntington Theatre Company’s space in the middle of their season, but that doesn’t explain why Julia Noulin-Mérat’s set is so ugly and shapeless, or why Darrah’s staging is so sloppy (and also shapeless). The set is a series of blocks; strung together, for example, they make up the whorehouse, so the performers are stuck either sitting or lying on top of them or sitting or standing in front of them. Darrah makes sure that the actors don’t block one another, but he hasn’t created any interesting stage pictures, and none of his effects comes off very well. When Peachum (James Maddalena) visits Police Chief Brown at the precinct and finds he’s locked in the cell that once contained Mack the Knife, Darrah has Peachum walk deliberately all around the space to help elucidate where the (invisible) bars are, but it just looks silly, especially since other, less emphatic actors have already been playing scenes in and around that jail cell.

The principal men – Burchett, Maddalena and Belcher – manage better with their roles than the women; they all seem to have been cast right (it’s harder to tell with the actresses). The two high points of the show are Burchett and Belcher’s “Army Song” duet in act one and Burchett’s “Death Message” near the end of act two. But the hero of the evening is the lighting designer, Pablo Santiago, who has been inspired by the classic expressionistic designs of the twenties and thirties, where light is carved into zones and slashes across the stage. Whenever I got exasperated with the staging I turned my attention to the lights; I just wish it hadn’t been necessary to use Santiago’s excellent work as a distraction.

– 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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