The Busker’s Opera, which stopped oh so briefly here at Zellerbach before going on tour, was not only vivid and exhilarating. It was one of those specific moments that open like a cone far beyond this time and place, that reveal its center and invoke the world. From the indelible first images of the Busker, spilling out his empty tin cans on to the stage, drumming on them, the empty box, and even his own drumsticks, his long silky hair, swinging and rippling, designer and director Robert Lepage’s version of John Gay’s The Busker’s Opera celebrates and castigates the culture—ours; and uses the culture’s own idiom to do so. The first few pieces drive the rock/rap/hip-hop style to passionate intensity. Ultimately savvy about theater, show business, manners, politics, and the human psyche, the work is marvelous and it is mad.
Peacham struts and bosses. His wife is irrepressibly conniving and optimistic, with an impressively agile and gymnastic voice—her visual charms a little over-ripe. Macheath (Marco Poulin) departs radically from most of his illustrious predecessors in this role in other great versions of the same story, John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera from the 18th century and Bertoldt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera from the 20th. Coming on with the strength and thrust of a welter-weight boxing champ with a singing voice, he manages “first-time” sweetness with each new conquest (Yeats: “Virginity renews itself like the moon”). He is basically a nice guy. And he can rock.
The chunky, muscular, peroxide Jenny Diver’s solo on the lot of women is a high point among the highs. Resting on her side in the center of the darkened stage, she is a sculpturally arresting lit oblong, head propped up on her arm, leg folded back. Black push-up brassiere, elastic girdle, garter belt and black lace stockings. Shadow, and too, too solid flesh, patches and swatches of flesh, too much flesh. She is Cleopatra, Venus, and a Caryatid. Poignant, seductive, longing, sad; her voice a smooth velvety flood, alto and baritone together—she embodies the clumsy, searing elegiac nature of human love. (Claire Gignac.)
In this production, Polly is a DJ.—she really is a DJ. Lucy and her father are excellent violinists. The Guitarist is a distinct and distinguished presence. The voo-doo figure (also Gignac) is a convergence of mysterious powers.
Frederic Lebrasseur, Kevin McCoy, Frederike Bedard, Julie Fainer, Veronika Makdissi-Warren, Jean Rene, and Martin Belanger (the musical director) are the other gifted performers. The 18th century rhetoric of many of the supertitles and lyrics add clarity and elegance.
The Busker’s Opera has the core humanity of previous versions with radical update of socio-economic themes. The comments on elections, corporate business tie-ups, globalism are mordant and amusing. Lockit, the governor of New York, has a Muslim name, and his pregnant daughter belly-dances with jubilant abandon. A smarmy suthren politician in a cowboy hat rants and slavers over the dangerous times that require a dangerous president. The video-frame mug-shot that hovers over his moving body to magnify the face—is merciless. Macheath’s last supper before execution is a team-constructed MacDonald’s hamburger, small, hard, and inedible.
There was a slump in power and quality toward the end of the Zellerbach production, a challenge to Lepage and Company to make the tinny, repetitive fiddle music used for Texas and Lousiana into something as alive as what they pulled off with hip-hop, rock, jazz, D.J., voodoo—and remember what W.C. Fields said about dogs and children on the stage. The dog was a distraction. The epilogue should much more powerfully evoke the essential quality of what has been presented.
I fervently hope that The Busker’s Opera has a long, long tour and will be repeated in this area.
Ariel is a painter and designer living in Berkeley.