Threepenny Punks

Shotgun Players give Threepenny Opera a punk-rock edge.

Michael Mayer was on to something when he conceptualized the rock
opera American Idiot, proving that theater can be married to a
punk sensibility. But fellow director Susannah Martin might argue that
the intersection of punk and theater actually dates back to the 1930s,
when Bertolt Brecht began experimenting with Marxist ideals and highly
stylized violence. His 1928 play The Threepenny Opera was an
aesthetic pastiche, driven more by social messages than character
drama. Yet it wasn’t shackled to a particular time or place. In
Martin’s version of the play — presented in collaboration with
Shotgun Players — she stays true to the original script and
concept, but reformats it for a modern audience. With the help of a
talented cast and a couple of snide references to the current banking
crisis, she manages to pull it off.

Which isn’t easy, given that Brecht was so intent on subverting his
own medium. Thus, his characters tend to represent ideas, rather than
flesh-and-blood humans. Threepenny Opera pits arch capitalist
Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum (Dave Garrett) against the antihero MacHeath
(Jeff Wood), a bank robber and womanizer who manages to win the hand of
Peachum’s daughter Polly (Kelsey Venter). Within the first few scenes,
Brecht laid a blueprint for everything he wanted to say in the
subsequent acts: That romance is all the more titillating when it
crosses class lines, that there’s no difference between an exploiter
like Peachum and a sadist like MacHeath, that spiritual upliftment
doesn’t exist for any of these characters. Much of the story is really
a vehicle for abstract themes. Captions projected on the back wall
serve to undermine the character monologues. Moreover, the story
advances not through action, but through a series of plucky musical
numbers.

Perhaps that’s what makes it so punk. The play’s seven-piece band,
directed by David Möschler, includes woodwinds, contra bass,
organ, guitar, banjo, trumpet, accordion, and a bass drum that actor
Josh Pollock (who also plays two of MacHeath’s gangster pals) handles
with a pair of mallets. Nicknamed the Weillators, they play a form of
aggressive cabaret music that composer Kurt Weill envisioned for a band
twice as large (hence, five musicians play multiple instruments).
Characterized by its signature tune, “The Ballad of Mack the Knife,”
Weill’s score harks back to the Weimar era but was probably very punky
for its time. And the cast members in this Threepenny treat it as such,
moshing around the stage in their Converse, clattering dishware,
jumping over furniture, and slamming into each other. Choreographer
Erika Chong Shuch turns their movements into a kind of operatic
violence. When MacHeath and Police Chief Tiger Brown (the excellent
Danny Wolohan) sing a rousing “Cannon Song” about their stint in the
British army, all the gangsters chime in. Ultimately the song devolves
into a full-on brawl.

The sets are “punk” in every way. Designed by Nina Ball, they
combine a West Oakland warehouse interior with furnishings that could
have been excavated from Brecht’s original play — such as a
broken balustrade, a wall of exposed brick, a pair of arched doors, and
a sign for the famed British holding company, Barclay’s. Otherwise, the
whole stage is splattered with graffiti and slathered in paper posters.
The old, dilapidated, scavenged architecture makes this
Threepenny look as though it’s happening in an appropriated
space. That’s an ingenious touch by Ball, who is famous for creating
environments that help distill storylines and amplify themes. In this
case, every detail is relevant, from the broken windows to the graffiti
messages (“Back off,” “We are your children,” “Hands are here to make
things. Hands are here to break things.”).

Choreography, music, and set design are what really propel The
Threepenny Opera
forward, since it’s not a play that lends itself
to character acting. Brecht conceived of theater as a pedagogical tool
and form of social advancement, rather than catharsis, so he
purposefully scraped all emotion out of his stories before putting them
onstage. Martin preserved his weird, disjointed structure and clunky
deus ex machina in her rendition. Yet she chose to hire actors who are
known for their emotional depth and force of personality: pretty,
soprano-voiced Venter, who looks like a filly among beggars; El Beh,
who morphs from a street kid into a pouty prostitute; the
ever-wonderful Beth Wilmurt, donning a black wig to play a goth hooker
named Jenny; and Wolohan, whose Tiger Brown is addled and endearing.
They devote themselves wholeheartedly to a script that turns into a
three-hour song-and-dance marathon, with social commentary mixed in.
Brecht’s description of his work as “epic theater” was no
understatement.

Threepenny does indeed feel three hours long by the end, but
it’s still a dizzying production. There’s something to be said for a
75-year-old opera whose story still has currency, and whose theme gets
repurposed for ad campaigns. That’s not exactly punk rock. But it’s
definitely timeless.

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