The Threepenny Opera — Bertolt Brecht’s 1928 “play with music — is like an expensive desert that’s so complex and filled with flavor most people can’t quite figure out how to enjoy it.
That’s how Brecht liked it. A proponent of what he called “Epic Theater,” Brecht was not interested in entertaining his audiences or allowing them to become lost in the emotions of a story. He wanted his audiences to stay a bit uncomfortable, to remain just distant enough from their feelings —and from the show they are watching — to always be thinking about how the play is being presented, what it all actually means.
Therefore, I’d say that for most people, the only significant obstacle in 6th Street’s thoroughly effective and often delightful production of Threepenny Opera is that in the end, it’s still The Threepenny Opera. Staged in the larger G.K. Hardt theater, it a fascinating choice for 6th Street, where its main-stage musicals have tended, of late, toward the safe and predictable.
Directed by Michael R.J, Campbell, Threepenny features thrilling singing voices, excellent musical direction by Janis Dunson Wilson, frequently brilliant staging, cooler-than-cool visual stylings, and whimsically Brechtian touches. The set, essentially a large room filled with props and costumes, resembles a theater hoarder’s paradise, and I loved those chalk-drawn signs some characters hold up from time to time, and that well-lit proscenium over the stage, chalked over with the scrawled titles of all the songs, constantly reminding us that this is, after all, just a play with music.
The music, by the way, is by Kurt Weill, and includes some of his best known songs.
The story is set in London in 1937, and plays like a Victorian-version of the Rocky Horror Show. It’s gleefully sexy and aberrant, and joyously contemptuous of those too sensitive and proper to sit and watch a dark, twisted, tune-filled show about the seedy underbelly of society.
Ironically, the musical—based on John Gay’s 1728 “The Beggar’s Opera”—is actually (if you pay attention) all about Europe’s wealthy class of bankers and businessman, who too-often behave like crooks and murderers. Though in Threepenny Opera, we get crooks and murderers behaving like bankers and businessmen.
The show’s best-known song (“The Ballad of Mack the Knife”), is presented in a gothy prelude by an accordion-playing street-singer (a first-rate Shawna Eierman), after which the plot-heavy story introduces Mr. and Mrs. Peachum (Robert Rogers & Eileen Morris, both excellent). The Peachums oversee a network of robbers and thugs, rivaled only by the vicious gang of the knife-wielding Macheath (a wonderful Jerry Lee, singing beautifully while looking like a cross between Charlie Chaplin and Gomez Addams).
When Mack secretly marries the Peachum’s daughter Polly (Molly Larsen, adding yet another excellent voice to the cast), things get complicated. It seem Mack has more than one wife, and a girlfriend or two on the side. One of them, the prostitute Jenny, played powerfully by Seran Elize Flores, reluctantly collaborates with the Peachums to have Mack arrested, his eventual fate illuminated, literally, the noose hanging over the stage, occasionally lit by a spot so we don’t forget its there.
The twisty tale is deliberately hard to follow (Brecht trikes again), but for venturous audiences willing to take their tea with a bit of arsenic, this energetic romp of an anti-capitalist fable is served up with enough style to keep you smiling, even as it sends you out of the theater thinking hard, and perhaps just a little unsettled.
‘Threepenny Opera’ runs Thursday–Sunday through October 23 at 6th Street Playhouse. www.6thstreetplayhouse.com