Leave it to the Shotgun Players to program The Threepenny Opera, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Weimar German cabaret musical, fitfully updated to ’70s punkishness, in place of a feel-good holiday show—though, amid high spirits, the attractively evil characters triumph over the more banal forces of order (or is it really due to the banality of order that they triumph?).
Sprawling over a great junk sculpture set by Nina Ball, with a septet pumping out Kurt Weill’s fabled score, the 15 players, grand or grimy in Mark Koss’s costumery, take on revolving roles as the crooks, beggars, cops and whores vying for their share of the gutter and whatever filthy lucre can be filched or scraped off the cobblestones of London—an 18th- century London in John Gay’s original Beggar’s Opera. Brecht’s original was set during Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee; Shotgun’s is set during Elizabeth II’s silver anniversary, 1977.
There is, in fact, a Yuletide tie-in with Brecht’s concept: gangster Mack the Knife (Jeff Wood), a perverse Son of Man, takes Poverty (Kelsey Venter, full of juice, as Polly) as his bride in a stable (which the Shotgun production renders as a bank), an inverted holy family of money culture in a burglarized crêche scene.
Later, after a rhyme and song begging forgiveness of mankind (adroitly pickpocketed by Brecht from François Villon), a happy ending is provided when Macheath is snatched from the gallows (here, The Chair—did England ever have one?) and given a title and income, any messy crucified martyrdom dispensed with by the ascension of Capital as the Kingdom on Earth. Everything’s upside down, just as Brecht saw it in bourgeois life: whatever’s held sacred contradicted by what is, in fact, done: an endless stream of appropriations and betrayals, sweetened or soured by song, the lyrics explaining what you must do to get on in the world.
The songs provide the brightest moments of highlighting. The ensemble joins in with Erica Chong Shuch’s choreography, Cynical witticisms get tossed off like clockwork: “What’s the first thing a married woman sets about doing? She gets a divorce!”
Shotgun’s rounded up a diverse cast, including Christopher White of mugwumpin and El Beh, who’s worked with Woman’s Will, both troupers playing in the background. To the fore, the women hold the palm, at least they did opening night, especially when Polly and Lucy (Rebecca Pingee), daughters of the founder of the Beggars Union (Dave Garrett’s Peachum) and of the Chief of Police (Danny Wolohan as Tiger Brown, Macheath’s old army buddy), respectively, find they are both hitched to Macky Messer, and team up for the “Jealousy Duet”and in whatever flask-guzzling pious proclamations Mrs. Peachum (Bekka Fink) sings or declaims.
The exhilaration of both principals and support was palpable opening night. And director Susannah Martin seemed the logical pick to pilot such a show after guiding very good productions of Harold Pinter’s Old Times for TheatreFIRST and Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession for Shotgun. (Brecht wrote with admiration of Shaw as a playwright who was both political and humorous.)
In this production, Shotgun has cast its nets wide. On opening night, the show as a whole didn’t quite cohere but revealed in bits and pieces something of the urbane feel of the original, a volatile compound of the extremes of bourgeouis high culture (opera) and the gutter (torch songs) gone clubbing together.
The haunting, penetrating, cutting double edge—no wonder charming Macheath closes his deals with a shiv—of Threepenny’s relentless message and its perverse glamour hasn’t set in yet. With the exception of Mrs. Peachum’s songs, the musical numbers—however well-sung or played—seldom have the necessary twist; the poetry’s missing. There’s a lot of fiddling with microphone stands and mics; a lot of effects seem flat—or ingenuous, in this very knowing “musical comedy.” The translation of the dialogue by Robert MacDonald and the song lyrics by Jeremy Sams, which has replaced the old American version, based on versions by composer Marc Blitzstein (a student of Weill) and others, is sometimes awkwardly academic, which doesn’t always help.
But doing Brecht ain’t easy, even his earlier, less programmatic work, like Threepenny. I remember a conversation a couple years back with Russian actor-director Oleg Liptsin (who will be performing Gogol’s The Nose at the Berkeley City Club in mid-January). Oleg said there seems to be a worldwide question mark in recent times regarding how Brecht can be staged, after a long spell of his influence, through the 1970s here and into the ’80s in the UK.
Talking with some of the performers after the show, I could feel their sense of commitment. They quoted a few things their director had said about their task. Now that it’s up and running, in front of an audience, Shotgun’s Threepenny Opera should grow and gain in focus.
Even if Brecht’s theater per se—which went on to Epic Theater, to the so-called “alienation effect” and other milestones in dramaturgy—draws a blank from present-day theaterfolk, there are always the great songs (and Brecht’s poems) to relish, which can only be done by singing them—or hearing them sung—night after night. Which is exactly what makes great theater, when the living moment sinks in and resurfaces with time.
THE THREEPENNY OPERA
Presented by the Shotgun Players at 8 p.m. Thursday–Saturday and at 5 p.m. Sunday through Jan. 17. Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave. $18-$30. 841-6500. www.shotgunplayers.org.