“What keeps a man alive?” sang Mr. Peachum toward the end of the two-hour and 45-minute production of The Threepenny Opera, in its end-of-the-run performance by West Edge Opera last Thursday evening. “You have to kill your neighbors to survive,” the lyric continues, “it’s selfishness that keeps a man alive.”
The phrase resounding in my critic’s head — at times during the performance and in retrospect — has been, “What keeps this show alive?” Surely not killing neighbors, since Oakland’s immense Bridge Yard that houses this season’s productions seemed to have attracted entire neighborhoods from Piedmont and from the hills of Berkeley.
Could it be some sort of abiding attraction to Bertolt Brecht himself, the man who penned Threepenny’s book and lyrics (set to music by his friend Kurt Weill)? Ideologically, Brecht was a Communist, purportedly a man of the people, and it’s this that attracted the attention of my left-wing parents (who raised me to admire Brecht) and a lot of similarly minded folk, from the time of Threepenny’s premiere 1928 Berlin production on into our own time.
Many of us know Threepenny through a few of Weill’s bittersweet songs from the score: the one quoted above (recorded by Tom Waits, among others), “Pirate Jenny” (as sung by Judy Collins or Nina Simone), and, of course, “Mack the Knife” (riotously covered by a number of pop celebrities). They show Weill’s special gift for creating melodies and voicings that are movingly sad and odd, laden with longing.
As for Brecht, I’ve reluctantly come to the realization that his approach to storytelling and characterization don’t quite work for me. The West Edge production reminded me why
Brecht’s theater of alienation forces an audience to confront theatrical artifice and the comforting illusions of modern society at once. So far as I can tell, West Edge has tried to align itself with this shit-stirring mission.
But where does that leave a theatrical company that wants to showcase its art, and where does that leave an audience that wants a reason to spend nearly three hours and whatever the tickets may cost?
Mack the Knife, aka Macheath, outside the pizzazz of his hit song, wasn’t really likeable onstage, nor was much of anybody else among his cohorts. And if we don’t like them, how are we to care about what happens to them, or what they’re singing about, or where their story goes? I’m mindful that both Gay and Brecht were working with satirical intent. But neither the satire nor the politics were clear in Threepenny’s story: Although the opera showcases the lowlife, economic classes aren’t really identifiable.
And the script, which is overly wordy, is rarely as funny as satire should be, and the multitudinous references to rape and, at one point, to underage sex objects, are more tawdry than ticklish. Was the generally two-dimensional acting a conscious and uniform intent of director Elkhanah Pulitzer’s approach, or not? For example, Polly Peachum, as played by Maya Kherani, may or may not have been a virginal character seduced from a middle-class family home by Macheath (Derek Chester), but neither her background nor her infatuation were convincing. Chester is a physically attractive performer who was afforded opportunities to bare his buff chest, but most of the sex in the show, whether acted, spoken about, or sung about, came off as gratuitous. The dramatic plot points — lust, rage, jealousy, regret, invective — go unearned.
The callousness of characterization was compounded by the production values. Was it intended that the costuming and sets landed somewhere between makeshift and sloppy? Can’t tell. Likewise the blocking, which was generally static, and the choreography, which appeared awkward.
A few departures from bleakness seemed an insight into what might have been. I was drawn to Robert Stafford’s depiction of police chief Tiger Brown, because Stafford spoke and moved like a good actor, and this in no way weakened his part. In a standout bit of staging, Macheath stepped down among the musicians in the pit for the “Ballad of the Pleasant Life”; I wished there’d been more kinetic variety of this sort.
Did Brecht, and by extension West Edge, not want to bequeath to us any theatrical values we might praise? Might a more naturalistic approach to acting and artful production values have strengthened the show?
Weill’s score is certainly one of Threepenny’s saving graces, and it was generally well-served by West Edge. David Möschler handily led what he describes in notes as “sort of a 1920s German Dixieland band,” himself performing on piano and harmonium. The cast boasted fine voices, prime among them Kherani’s clarion, honeyed soprano as Polly and Catherine Cook’s sardonic mezzo as her mother. Chester, and Sarah Coit as Jenny Diver, are also memorable vocalists, and Erin O’Meally sounded strong as Lucy Brown in her duet with Polly, an effective parody of grand opera.
For my drei groschen, Brecht’s sociopolitical purposes can be otherwise served, and the values of good theater and entertainment need not be compromised in the process. You can be entertained by a well-crafted production and have your consciousness raised while your heart is touched. Consider West Side Story, Rent, or Les Misérables. But Brecht might just respond from the grave with one of his Threepenny lyrics: “If you confess that life’s a mess, how can it disappoint?”