Threepenny Review: The University of Memphis gets Brechtian

Posted by Chris Davis on Thu, Nov 15, 2012 at 7:07 PM

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Put on your hip waders kids, I'm gonna pontificate a little.

Shortcomings (and there are many) aside, anybody interested in the work of Bertolt Brecht will want to see the Mark Allan Davis-directed production of Threepenny Opera at the U of M. The student actors are top notch, the material is meaty, and the band takes an admirably squawking stab at Kurt Weill's lurid, lurching score. More to the point, it's been 24-years since Memphians last had a chance to see this landmark musical, that vintage production was shut down after only two preview performances, and post-millennial Memphis may never see an Arturo Ui or Mother Courage.

That said, pack a sack lunch and get ready for a long evening of underwhelming design, cutsie anachronism, and
self-indulgence.

Brecht's the reigning king of misunderstood artists. Threepenny Opera, his most accessible work, is a regular victim of these misunderstandings.

Too often the word "Brechtian" is flung around as a synonym for "unnatural," or, "weird," or "confrontational," or it's used to describe performances that are heavily politicized or formalized to an extreme. I'd make the unlikely case that when Brecht denounced naturalism as the Theatre's most ridiculous convention he became the Theatre's best naturalist.

For what it's worth I don't think Brecht's American heirs are writing Broadway musicals They're in bands, or burlesque shows, or they're in Chicago doing improv, or they're touring the country with the WWE, an organization that no longer pretends wrestling is a real sport.

Nobody mistakes realistic sets for busy city streets or believes somebody died in the big fight. So why lie to an audience that knows better, especially when an empty stage is everywhere and every actor, freed from the pretense that he or she is anything but an actor, contains the universe?

Brecht came of age as a playwright in the mid-1920's, alongside artists of the Bauhaus school. It was a time when edgier creatives found beauty in function in a way that prefigures the contemporary industrial design of Steve Jobs' iProduct. Designers working on a piece like Threepenny Opera aren't expected to craft literal spaces for artificial humans to talk to themselves, pretend not to see the audience, and yell at each other when they really should be whispering. They are tasked with building spaces well suited for storytellers, puppeteers, dancers, musicians and other human vessels for the didactic Playwright's comical lectures and crass object lessons.

Everything that's brought onto the Brechtian stage acts. Costumes, when appropriate, become uniforms that turn whores into "whores" and brides into "brides," and brides into whores, and so on, eliminating the need for too much in the way of an introduction.

The most Brechtian moment in the U of M's Threepenny happens before the show starts, and takes the form of an extended teaching skit showing the audience what happens to inconsiderate ticketholders who forget to silence their phones. It's a funny bit of the ultraviolence, but it does go on. It's followed by a second false start in the form of an extended curtain speech where one person greets the audience in badly-read German, while a second interprets. Big comedy. Eventually, the actors are permitted to start the play, which begins in medias res, forgoing the "Ballad of Mack the Knife," a number that opens and closes the show in every version of the script I've ever encountered.

With its off-stage fog machines and finger-popping homages to Bob Fosse this Threepenny tries like a champ to have its Brecht and Broadway too. These have always been strange bedfellows, and the progeny is always malformed.


Ken Ellis's scenic design is blah and artificially shabby. With notible exceptions, Melissa Penskava Kosa's costumes never say much about period, place, class or character. In clothing and choreography one is more likely to see a Fosse chorus than a Brecht ensemble which, to take nothing away from Fosse, is like expecting a glass of wine but getting a wino instead. Or, maybe it's the other way around.

The singing is all strong and the slapstick is mostly funny but points are missed and the pace crawls. For all of Brecht's mystique, this frank story about Macheath, a dangerous, dashing pimp and highwayman who marries the teenage daughter of Mr. Peachum, a "legitimate" businessman operating an exploitive temp service for beggars, isn't far removed from any other comedy of manners. Physical humor is encouraged, but the real comedy is rooted in brutish thugs behaving like proper gentlemen while upright Bible-quoting citizens operate like whores and extortionists. When these distinctions aren't lost in badly mixed sound they dissipate into the numbing blandness of a show with lots of slick tricks and no stylistic continuity.

I didn't see a translator's name listed in the program and couldn't find any history supporting Davis' choice to eliminate the Balladeer, give his song to Mackie's old flame Jenny Diver the whore, and move it from the beginning to the middle of the show. It's a decision that serves Threepenny no better than a series of tacked on transitional skits that, while clever, add at least 20-minutes to the evening. Brecht/Weill songs don't advance the action like American musical numbers do, and pairing the slow-moving "Ballad of Mack the Knife" with the equally slow-moving (but beautifully sung) "Solomon Song" stops the show in its tracks, and not in a good "show stopping" way.

The U of M's Threepenny Opera is abundantly creative when it comes to inventing original bits that are only loosely connected to the script, but far less so in finding the vibrant, violent, and hungry spirit of a vibrant, violent, and hungry piece of theater.

Hats off to Jacob Wingfield (Macheath), AJ Bernard (Peachum), Janie Crick (Mrs. Peachum), Kristina Hanford (Polly Peachum), Shakiera Adams (Jenny Diver), Elizabeth Kellicut (Lucy Brown), and Sean Carter (Tiger Brown) and to a talented chorus who collectively make a tough night of theater worth the effort.

Comments (10)

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Now I know why 3PO is rarely done. I think it was longer than the Nurembourg trials.

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Posted by mayfield on 11/18/2012 at 4:59 PM

After reading this review and hearing the initial misgivings of a few of my Introduction to Theatre students who had seen the show during its first weekend, I must admit that I was not looking forward to attending. Maybe it was the anticipation of drudgery that influenced my reaction, but I found myself in many moments (as several of my other students did)—despite the sometimes tedious length of the production—pleasantly surprised and, at turns, laughing out loud or otherwise fully engaged. Many images and performances stand out and linger with me still. It was, as one of my students commented, an exhausting evening, and as Chris points out, sometimes a tough night of theatre. But I’m not sure that that’s not what Brecht would have wanted. If we choose to care what he wanted.

Chris seems to take umbrage at Mark Davis’s elimination of the balladeer and the reassignment of the ballad of “Mack the Knife.” Putting copyright issues aside in terms of whose English translation of Brecht’s work was being used in this production, there is already controversy over how much of Brecht’s translation and adaptation—which is what it is—of John Gay’s 1728 ballad opera THE BEGGAR'S OPERA (even retaining a couple of the songs intact) was Brecht’s, and how much was the work of his longtime collaborator Elisabeth Hauptmann. On that note, Brecht was an avid adapter early on and, come to find out, often relied on Hauptmann to provide him with script. Not to take away from his brilliance as a poet and dramatist, but strategic rearrangement would seem to be in keeping with the spirit of Brecht’s work during this time.

Another major point that I think is being missed here is that the Brecht of THREEPENNY OPERA was not the Brecht of the Berliner Ensemble in the 1950s, not even the Brecht of the 1930s lehrstücke. This was Brecht in transition, not long after he had first read Marx, while he was in the throes of a cascade of theatre work in Berlin and before he had fully formulated his ideas of alienation or many of the concepts with which we have come to associate his work. Macheath maintains more than a little bit of Baal in him. Written in a fervor, THREEPENNY harkens back to Brecht’s admiration of Frank Wedekind while hinting at incipient glances toward a Marxist future.

With regard to the set and choreography in Mark Davis’s production, I did not see shabbiness or leanings toward Broadway and Bob Fosse; rather, I saw classic German expressionism in both. The stairway was vintage Leopold Jessner and the stylized group movement reminded me of photographs of 1920s European stagings that began to make their way across the pond in theatrical productions like John Howard Lawson’s PROCESSIONAL. Both set and movement were redolent of the film METROPOLIS, which many of the original Berlin audience of THREEPENNY may well have seen when it premiered there just one year before.

The skits and “character work” before the show were, for me, particularly effective because they gave living example to my students of early twentieth-century European avant-garde movements that sought to challenge the audience and get them out of their comfort zones.

I agree with a lot of what Chris has said here, especially in terms of the quality of student performances, which were, as he says, top notch. Could the scenes have used tightening? Definitely. Could some transitional bits have been reined in or cut? Absolutely. These are things that could have been fixed, given another few rehearsals. But for these college students to have had the experience to work on this production, and for it to be seen and talked about by the uninitiated (i.e., Intro students) was an invaluable thing for this community.

Now, if the University of Memphis could see clear to give theatre students academic credit for doing such productions—in tandem with the research and intellectual exploration necessary to understand with more complexity what it is that they are doing besides honing their craft (which they already do very well)—and to foster interdisciplinary conversations within the university through such productions, we’d be in even better stead.

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Posted by Stephen Huff on 11/21/2012 at 12:56 AM

Stephen, I agree with you RE Brecht/Hauptmann, less so about this not being the Brecht we think of as Brecht. It's pretty clearly the turning point, and a cornerstone of Epic theater. Still, I'm not sure how that relates to the use of the ballad.

Also, I didn't see a translator named and am of the opinion that this may have been a jumble. Please correct if I'm wrong but I heard things that I recognize from multiple translations. It could be that this translation resembles other translations, since the source material is the same.

I'm less concerned with the elimination of the balladeer than the elimination of the play's bookends. The last ballad (not used) goes something like this: "Happy endings, nice and tidy, it's a rule I learned in school...". I think it is clear that there are specific places where these fit within the puzzle -- the intro and the outro (to borrow from the BDDDB)-- and backing the Ballad up against the Solomon song was a bad idea. Like a third intermission without the leg-stretching.

Adding, I'm familiar with several translations, none of which reorder or reassign the ballad. Doesn't mean that translation doesn't exist.

Last quickie: Clearly we're looking at both the influence of Wedekind and Erwin Piscator. And obviously the full on embrace of a teaching theater hasn't been fully embraced, but TPO has been tweaked to function as a teaching model. And I really missed this line which was either cut, garbled, or dropped: Mack to Polly: "I'm thinking of going into banking altogether. It's safer and the takes are bigger."

Typing this on the run. Would happily discuss further.

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Posted by Chris Davis on 11/21/2012 at 9:07 AM

Speaking of bookends: "full on embrace of a teaching theater hasn't been fully embraced" is maybe my favorite thing I've ever mistyped.

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Posted by Chris Davis on 11/21/2012 at 9:16 AM

Just a quick addition, since, in my haste I sounded awfully contrary.

Huff typed: "Now, if the University of Memphis could see clear to give theatre students academic credit for doing such productions—in tandem with the research and intellectual exploration necessary to understand with more complexity what it is that they are doing besides honing their craft (which they already do very well)—and to foster interdisciplinary conversations within the university through such productions, we’d be in even better stead."

Couldn't agree more. I was thrilled to see the entire U of M season. So much good material has been done over the past several years, and there's no reason why productions shouldn't, at the very least, be treated like labs. These are extraordinary opportunities for the students, and should be encouraged.

Because of its unique position in the modern canon and The New Objectivity work on a show like Treepenny will be as meaningful as any class.

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Posted by Chris Davis on 11/21/2012 at 9:45 AM

Uncanny, Chris. Earlier today after reading this thread my wife said, "Honey, I'm worried about my favorite Flyer guy Chris Davis. He seems awfully contrary today. I said, "Hey, look. Maybe he was in a big hurry. At least he doesn't mistype." Happy Thanksgiving, Flyer crew! Love you guys and gals. Whatta class outfit.

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Posted by Phlo on 11/21/2012 at 10:44 AM

Trivia:

The "Lotte Lenya" mentioned in the song "Mack The Knife" was a real person. She played Jenny in the first performance of "The Threepenny Opera" in Berlin in 1928, and went on to play Colonel Rosa Klebb in the James Bond movie "From Russia With Love". (Klebb tried to kill Bond with a poisoned knife that she flipped out of her shoe, but failed and was shot by a Bond girl.)

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Posted by GWCarver on 11/21/2012 at 1:42 PM

Lotte Lenya was also in the original "Cabaret"cast on Broadway.

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Posted by mayfield on 11/21/2012 at 2:19 PM

@GW Carver: That line isn't in the original "Ballad of Mack the Knife," but was added in the Bobby Darin arrangement, which is an uptempo swinger by comparison. Lotte Lenya was also married to Kurt Weill, the song's composer.

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Posted by Chris Davis on 11/21/2012 at 5:05 PM

I just happened upon this blog for the first time and I can put some of your worries at ease. I served as the production stage manager for the show (calling a 400 cue, 3hr 20min evening of theatre is a rewarding challenge), and I can attest to the fact that any alterations/change (the moving of "The Ballad of Mack the Knife") made to the show were approved by the Kurt Weill Foundation and other parties involved. Thanks for the thoughts, Chris!

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Posted by Travis on 03/15/2013 at 11:23 PM
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