The Threepenny Opera

by John Stoltenberg

Signature Theatre’s new production of The Threepenny Opera—directed and choreographed with unerring cunning by Matthew Gardiner—is cringe-inducing, snarky, impudent, and jarring. Everything it’s meant to be. And I cannot imagine this subversive classic could look, sound, and play any better.

The show’s in-your-face surprises start in the MAX Theatre entranceway, where a devised BBC broadcast announces Queen Elizabeth has died, and fake covers of British celebrity mags scream CHARLES ABDICATES! SHOCKS ENGLAND! and MACHEATH IS AT LARGE! Just like that, we’re time-traveled, pitched into a world so contemporary it hasn’t happened yet. Inside, a vastly fascinating set designed by Misha Kachman juxtaposes graffiti and girders, mayhem and mottos—a place apropos distopian class warfare (a neon sign touts INSTANT CA$H, the painted stage floor cynically promises PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS).  The show’s trenchant motif of income inequality is on eye-popping display. Soon a stock market ticker will scroll ominously across the scene.

The first song, “The Flick Knife Song,”  is Jenny’s. We’ll learn later Jenny survives through prostitution. Natascia Diaz sings the song stunningly, breathtakingly,  beginning intimately, slowly, then building to a  brazen belt. It introduces the show’s charismatic main character, Macheath, who we’ll learn later is Jenny’s former boyfriend/pimp:

He’s evil, he’s a murd’rer
And they haven’t caught him yet
He’s a rapist, he’s a sadist
And they haven’t caught him yet

The translation chosen for this production is edgy and brash. The dialog is by Robert David MacDonald; the lyrics are by Jeremy Sams. It’s astoundingly good. It blew me away. And its raw vernacular had me wincing more than once. Later in Act One, for instance, Jenny has a duet with Macheath (Mitchell Jarvis, who does balletic bad boy like nobody’s business). They sing of their sorry affair:

JENNY
…it was fine till everything went wrong
We had the baby—but it didn’t last long
When I fell pregnant it was festive for a day

MACHEATH
But then we thought it best to wash it all away

JENNY
The drunken doctor showed us what to do

MACHEATH
We took the mess and put it down the loo

This duet, like all the musical numbers in the show, is performed gorgeously, gloriously, backed by a band of eight superb musicians under the extraordinary direction of Gabriel Mangiante. Kurt Weill’s great score more than gets its due, and music fans will rave over this rendition. What enthralled me even more, however, was the dramatic material, the meanings in it, and this show’s genius mise-en-scène.

There is precious little sentimentality in The Threepenny Opera. The script sends up every sanctimony it touches, including self-righteous charity. Mr. Peachum and Mrs. Peachum (Bobby Smith and Donna Migliaccio, both powerhouse vocalists) run a business licensing and fleecing beggars, whom they clothe and coach in order to elicit maximum handouts. The Peachums are to panhandlers as pimps are to prostitutes—a sarcastic story point this production handles shrewdly. Costume Designer Frank Labovitz’s riotously witty outfits illustrate what Mr. Peachum calls the “five basic varieties of human wretchedness best calculated to touch the human heart.” But artifice is all, he says, because “if the misery is genuine, nobody believes it.”

Their daughter is Polly Peachum (the diminutive dynamo Erin Driscoll), and she elopes with Macheath, a notorious underworld criminal, much to her parents’ horror. In her own defense, Polly sings them “Barbara Song,” explaining how she gave up the good-girl courtship code when she met Mr. Wrong:

There came a day when out of the blue
Came a man who couldn’t say please
And he didn’t even knock as he opened the door
And his smell made me week at the knees
He didn’t talk nice, he didn’t look nice
In fact he was uglier than sin
He didn’t care if he treated me respectfully
And that’s why I let him in.

As staged, with Polly lolling erotically on a bed, the song is a crowd-rousing showstopper. Driscoll knocks it out of the park. But what of the song itself? What the heck’s it doing in a show about income disparity, the lives of  desperation among the poor, the underclass that capitalism creates and requires? Is “Barbara Song” simply a sordid celebration of female self-abnegation? Is it a satire on masochistic acquiescence? We were told up top, after all, that the dude she falls for is a rapist and a sadist.

There’s a sharp class consciousness that pervades the show’s scathing riffs on capitalism and poverty. That’s the legacy of Bertolt Brecht and a convicting call to conscience. But among the intriguing aspects of this illuminating production are its cutting riffs on gender power inequities. Polly’s song “Pirate Jenny,” for instance, is written as a full-throated fantasy of female revenge (“There’s a ship in the harbor / with four dozen cannon / and they’re pointing at you”), and Driscoll makes no mistake she means what she sings.

In Act Two there’s a “Jealously Duet” between Polly and Lucy Brown, both of whom believe themselves to have a special claim on Macheath’s affections (they’re both wrong; he’s a complete cad).  It’s a spiteful cat-fight, staged and sung hilariously, all the more so because Lucy is played in drag.  This inspired cross-gender casting (of Rick Hammerly, a terrific comic actor) has a revelatory effect on the scene: it frames the cat-fight more as gender-class commentary than as horizontal-hostility cartoon.

Throughout the show there are references to the economics of ethics: High-flown moral ideals mean diddly to the down-and-out, who must do whatever they can merely to make do. The beggars on the street, the women in prostitution, the men in crime—The Threepenny Opera sees their common causality in upper-class hypocrisy. And Signature’s sensational production makes the message sing and dance to beat all heck.

The finale is a call for understanding, perhaps the only moment of sincerity in the show:

Don’t judge the poor too harshly
They turn to crime whenever times are tough
For life today is cold and grey and ghastly
And living it is punishment enough

Unlike conventional musicals where the musical numbers advance the plot, express a character’s inner emotions, and such, the songs in The Threepenny Opera are clever provocations—vexing perspectives and points of view to make us squirm. If that doesn’t sound like an especially entertaining way to spend an evening in theater—having one’s conscience pricked and perturbed—fear ye not. Threepenny Opera is pricelessly fun.

 

 

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