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A CurtainUp Review
The Threepenny Opera


Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral.
—Bertolt Brecht
Stefan Kurt and Angela Winkler (photo by Lesley Leslie-Spinks)
S. Kurt and A. Winkler with company members (Photo: Lesley Leslie-Spinks)
It's a dog-eat-dog world this week at the Gilman Opera House at BAM. If you wander by (you're not likely to get a ticket to go inside unless you already have one) and hear barking (or an occasional meow), it's coming from the extraordinary acting company of the Berliner Ensemble. And like everything else these performers do in this production, it's music to our ears.

Specifically, it's Kurt Weill's jazzy yet jarring score for the Brecht-Weill masterpiece, Dreigroschenoper, better known to English speakers as The Threepenny Opera, in a form conceptualized by Robert Wilson. (More about him later.) We mostly know Threepenny in its Marc Blitzstein adaptation (though its most recent high profile New York production featured a much-derided translation by Wallace Shawn). (Links to several of CurtainUp's reviews are listed below.)

This production delivers Brecht's German unfiltered. (Supertitles are the work of John Willett, whose translation was utilized for the Lincoln Center production in the Seventies.) Once the performances on-stage grab you -- and they will very quickly -- unless you really don't know the story, the translation will become an afterthought.

Founded by Brecht and his second wife, Helene Weigel, The Berliner Ensemble now performs at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, where Dreigroschenoper premiered in 1928. Having seen a number of productions of Threepenny, none entirely successful and most not at all, the work of this company of actors made me realize (as I have with other shows, perhaps most notably some of the works of Irish playwrights) that sometimes you have to go to the source to truly appreciate what a play is all about.

The acting here, emphatic and quite physical, is exquisite across the board. Robert Wilson's contributions to the enterprise, very much in his usual style, just get in the way. Like the super-titles, it's best not to let them interfere.

Writing from the vantage point of the early Weimar era, Brecht based his work on John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, set in the early 18th Century, during the reign of George I, but moved his story forward to the time of the coronation of Queen Victoria (1838). Wilson leaves the story intact, but resets the physical elements to the Weimar period (for no apparent reason), unmistakably calling to mind a marriage of the decadence of, say, Cabaret, and the expressionism of, say, Fritz Lang. He also embellishes the production with loads of now-familiar sound effects.

Although Weill's precious "soundscape" remains largely intact (the excellent orchestra of eight, co-directed by keyboardist Hans-Jörn Brandenburg and percussionist Stefan Rager, retains most of Weill's original eccentric orchestration), Wilson's sonic overlay also does more to interfere than enhance. Finally, Wilson's snail's pacing at times challenges the audience's attention span, especially during the two hour duration of the combined first two acts (the intervening intermission having been omitted).

Stefan Kurt's Macheath, all dolled up by costume designer Jacques Reynaud in black sequins, with peroxided hair and (like everyone in the cast) stark white face paint with eyes highlighted in black, is utterly compelling. He is more insouciant than rogue-ish, yet also quite methodical. As the villain to Macheath's anti-hero, Jürgen Holtz's Peachum is certainly his match, playing the role both straightforwardly yet at times with an impish delight that serves the play's ending well. He has been fashioned as a cane-toting, yamulke-wearing Jew, inexplicably, especially in light of his several textual references to his "Christianity." His wife, Celia (Traute Hoess), is an intense if sometimes inebriated battle-ax of a woman, and also quite funny when she needs to be.

Daughter Polly (Stefanie Stappenbeck) manages to go from sweet and innocent to saucy and sharp in a New York minute and, like the wonderful Angela Winkler's Jenny and Anna Graenzer's Lucy, executes her singing with panache. (As is often the case, Polly and Lucy's "Jealousy Duet" is a highlight, as is Jenny's "Solomon Song.") While keeping her distance, this Jenny remains at the center of attention. Axel Werner, as the police chief Tiger Brown, is somewhat reminiscent of a corrupt version of the officious Inspector Javert in Les Misérables, although, on cue, he also becomes quite a song-and-dance man.

Aside from Macheath's sequins, Polly appearing in white at the outset and for her "wedding," and the "outfit" Peachum supplies Filch, the remainder of the costumes are black, and padded in such a way as to provide Wilson with just the silhouettes his canvas demands. This also, of course, provides the precise black and white palette that permits the lighting to play its tricks. The set pieces, stark in the typical Wilsonian signature, and geometric, occasionally introduce shocks of color, in addition to those provided by the variably color-lit backdrop. A black front-curtain also provides an effective backdrop for scenes played at the apron, until the final curtain provides yet another color shock.

Despite my lack of enthusiasm for what Robert Wilson has done in this production, the good news is that, as it should, the fine acting of the Berliner Ensemble does indeed shine through. For those of us who were not around to see that original New York production in the 1950's that people still remember and talk about, this too is one that will be hard to forget. LINKS
Threepenny on Broadway (Shawn)
Threepenny Off-Broadway (Blitzstein)
Threepenny at Williamstown (Blitzstein)
Three Penny in Los Angeles

The Threepenny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper)
by Bertolt Brecht adapted from Elizabeth Hauptmann's German version of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera
Lyrics by Bertolt Brecht
Music by Kurt Weill
Direction, Stage, Light concept by Robert Wilson
with Jürgen Holtz (Peachum), Traute Hoess (Celia), Stefanie Stappenbeck (Polly), Stefan Kurt (Macheath), Axel Werner (Brown), Anna Graenzer (Lucy), Angela Winkler (Jenny), Georgios Tsivanoglou (Filch), Ulrich Brandhoff, Martin Schneider, Boris Jacoby, Winfried Goos, Dejan Bucin, Jörg Thieme, Uli Pleßmann, Heinrich Buttchereit, Anke Engelsmann, Ruth Glöss, Ursula Höpfner-Tabor, Marina Senckel, Gabriele Völsch, Gerd Kunath, Walter Schmidinger
Costumes by Jacques Reynaud
Music direction by Hans-Jörn Brandenburg and Stefan Rager
Co-direction by Ann-Christin Rommen
Co-design scenery by Serge von Arx
Co-design costumes by Yashi Tabassomi
Dramaturgy by Jutta Ferbers, Anika Bárdos
Lighting by Andreas Fuchs and Ulrich Eh
Running Time: 3 hours with 1 intermission
in German with English supertitles
BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, 30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn (@Ashland Pl.)
October 4-8, 2011 @7:30
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 10/5/11 performance
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