Directed by Michael Haverty and Bryan Mercer and using the Blitzstein translation of the script, the best thing about “The Threepenny Opera” at 7 Stages last night was the Brecht. There were some good performances, but the production suffered a bit from miscasting and Haverty’s penchant for gimmickry and novelty.
Bertolt Brecht’s play is ostensibly about, Polly Peachum, the daughter of the boss of the beggar’s guild, marrying the philandering head of a gang of thieves, Macheath (aka Mac the Knife). Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, her father, is opposed to the match and Macheath is unable to be faithful. It’s the kind of story line that you might find in any number of comedic operas of the Romantic era or 18th century singspielen except for the fact that the characters are of the bottom rung of society rather than nobility.
Brecht, with the help of Weill’s excellent music, uses this contrast to ask questions about class status: are behaviors that we find excusable and entertaining, if not exactly acceptable, among the upper classes really meaningfully different than ones that we frown upon among the lower classes. Ensemble songs ask if robbing a bank is really worse than founding one and point out that morality is easy with a full stomach. Throw in a few jabs at corrupt law enforcement, the absurd horrors of military service abroad, a transgender matriarch, and an ingénue who sings “Pirate Jenny” at her own wedding and is tough enough to take over the captainship of a gang of cut-purses and safe-crackers and you have a delightfully wry challenge to nearly every character trope in the history of opera wrapped up in a most clever burlesque theatrical package.
Brechtian theater generally uses various methods to create distance between the audience and the play so that the audience will take a step back and think a little more critically about what they are seeing. The script can seem a bit disjointed: pushing the audience back just as they are being drawn into the story. The artifice of the staging is generally laid bare, without legs, borders, or backdrops to hide the lights and the walls, and the set pieces are usually obviously facsimiles. Musical accompaniment is often on-stage and sometimes actors that are not in the scene wait visibly to the side instead of off-stage.
For Threepenny Opera, the set is supposed to be cheap and crude, made on a budget appropriate to a beggar. The design for this production was reminiscent of Weimer-era expressionist film sets, with odd angles and disorienting spirals. It’s crudeness, however, was made to seem less the result of a tight budget and more the result of a deficiency of skill by the decision by Haverty to make use of live video projections. A modern digital camera was embedded in a cardboard case designed to look like a classic film camera of the era. The video was filtered to look like expressionist film and wirelessly projected on a screen above the stage that looked somewhat like a board. A slight lag made it unpleasant to watch when people were singing into the camera and its use to project a diorama of a living-room during the wedding of Macheath and Polly was too washed out by the ambient light from the stage to be enjoyable. (The same issue made Kristin Haverty’s animations a wedding feast projected onto a sheet difficult to see.) Mostly, though, the video added a level of technical polish that undermined the intention of a purposefully crude set design. I think that Haverty’s skill with puppetry could have been put to good use everywhere that we had video. Although not a big part of the show, Haverty (being Haverty) did manage to include one moment of puppetry in the form of a very large shadow penis that, although terribly cheesy, worked better than any of the video.
There was also live musical accompaniment, which I appreciate in any show. Actors Nicolette Emanuelle, Jed Drummond, and one other who doesn’t seem to be credited as being in the band, doubled as musicians. Unfortunately, Emanuelle’s cello was shoved behind the other, much louder instruments and could not be heard through most of the play. One of the people with whom I was attending didn’t even realize that there was a cellist until I lamented our not being able to hear her during one of the intermissions. The musicians performance, however, was very good and brought a lot to the show.
The performance itself was good enough, but had its weaknesses. Aside from Aaron Strand, Kevin Stillwell, and Don Finney as Macheath, Mr. Peachum, and his wife, Celia Peachum, respectively, everyone else had issues with their sung lines being heard. Many of the actors simply should not have been cast in a musical as they had difficulty projecting their voices enough to be heard clearly even in our third row seats: they would speak their lines well enough but then the volume would drop dramatically when singing. Sometimes, though, the problem was poor stage direction. Stephanie Lloyd as Polly Peachum, for example, was made at one point to sing lying on her back looking straight up into the camera and Macheath’s henchmen were, at times, off in the wings singing alternatively to the wall or to the camera instead of the audience.
The acting ranged from middling to decent. Accents were all over the place, which is a common issue in Atlanta theater that makes me wish that directors would stop having actors attempt them. The level of energy varied, as well. Most of the performances were absurdly over the top and somewhat clownish, which is appropriate to the script, though the supporting cast varied by degrees in this regard. The weakest performance was by Dorothy V. Bell-Polk, who played Jenny Diver. She played the role in a fairly straightforward manner that would have been good in another play but was not appropriate for this one, which made her seem kind of flat throughout the show.
The staging also included Haverty’s attempts at choreography. The movements weren’t appropriate to the skills of the actors and there were a lot of awkward moments in the blocking where you could see that the actors were having to wait in position for a cue. This isn’t the first time that I’ve seen his choreography and I have to say that I really wish that he’d bring in an outside expert to handle this in the future unless he plans on getting some better training in theatrical choreography.
Overall, with all of the above-mentioned weaknesses, I’d have to say that this was a good enough production. It was good enough to get the Brecht from the script and the Weill from the music. More importantly, it was good enough to be entertaining. I really appreciate that 7 Stages brought some Brecht to the stage: there aren’t many places to see things like this in the area and I very much hope that they’ll continue to bring some of the classic, avant-garde scripts to life for Atlanta audiences to compliment their support for the development of contemporary works by new playwrights.