‘The Threepenny Opera’ As A Beggars' Banquet

by '69
Amherst Student

("The Threepenny Opera" was given over the weekend at Stone Theatre. It will be given again on Monday and Tuesday nights. Many tickets are left and are available at the door).

First, for those who like to read only the first few sentences of a review, and who expect little pep pills of judgment to descend from the heavens at the outset, herewith is tidy capsule: If you think you might have any inclination at all at this or any other time in your life to see "The Threepenny Opera" by Bert Brecht and Kurt Weill, I suggest you see it now at Stone Theatre, because I suspect that the odds are strongly against your coming across such a completely realized, finely etched conception of this great work in the very near future, no matter where your bountiful travels bear you.

Experiencing "Threepenny Opera" is a pretty strange run-around. First it hits you as a slightly queasy vaudeville with a nervous twitch and a rancid underbelly, and 'then, as the hurdy gurdy scum of the surface starts to clear, you begin to see it as something more, and more than a little disturbing. It is certainly black, extremely black, amazingly nihilistic, completely and utterly cynical and sarcastic, yet also finally monstrously humane, humane in the most unsentimental, most intellectual, most complex, and most convincing way.

There is no final affirmation of life, no ray of light to look to, not even a glimmer of a future salvation. There is not even the existentialist salve to lubricate its corrosion: nowhere in this piece will you find a "noble, heroic acceptance of the sordid unfeeling universe." Brecht and Weill give us none of these "escapes": The humanity of this, and all Brecht's work, stems from neither easy emotional equations, pat sentimental responses, or ordered and reassuring intellectual wrap-ups. There is no final love, hope, or charity.

Only a hard faith, faith in the artist to see man as he is, to create in that image, and faith in the audience to respond to the artists' vision. "Threepenny Opera" demands a great deal from its audience. It demands the recognition of truth, cold, unpleasant, unfeeling, unresolved, unordered, uncomfortable, unanswerable, and undeniable truth. And in that recognition, that awareness of the facts of human life, lies the purest humanity.

Of course, "Threepenny" is a musical, and so magnificently musical that you can't ever free yourself of the jagged, mocking, despairing textures of the Kurt Weill music.

And as you leave the theatre humming any one of those ditties of decay, you feel less like a spectator than an accessory … an accessory because, like everyone around you, there's nothing you can do to stop the crime of human disintegration … nothing you can do but keep on humming, keep on dancing, keep on singing dose songs … yeah!

The music, like the comedy, like the characters, like the cheerful title itself, is a come-on … and once you're inside — splash! Like all Brecht-Weill, "Threepenny" is viciously shrewd. First it curls up the finger of invitation, then it points the finger of accusation, and finally it gives you the finger of rage. And then it ushers you out. Alone. Still humming dat "Mack the Knife." And where is Bobby Darin when we need him?

The Stone production, directed by Barry Keating '69, is simply superb … I would like to be able to hurl around a flashy neon adjective like "stunning" or "electrifying." But, in a sense, the production is too good for that, too honest and faithful to Brecht's intentions. Brecht did not want to "stun" or "electrify" with this one, as even that would be too easy. Rather, the production makes careful, sharp incisions. And it feels just fine.

What is so gratifying about the work of Stone is the solid driving conviction and assurance of the finished product. Everyone is so sure of what they're doing. This is in sharp contrast to the New York production, for instance, that ran for over eight "smash" years in Greenwich Village. That mounting was despicably castrated; a piece of vacuum-cleaned cellophane. All the costumes were frilly and lovely; Macheath, the main character, who should be emptily decadent and sordidly slimy, was all dash and matinee fire; and all the whores were about as diseased as Kitty in "Gunsmoke." The production was a mess.

But whereas the N. Y. production was full of robust nosy cheeks, With maybe a bit of an Excedrin headache for "realism," the Stone version spreads itself out with the grimy splendor of a colorful infection, all the delight of a carnival scab. For once, Brecht has not been squished soft for soothing commercial appeal.

Especially striking were a few improvisational "set-pieces" that Keating worked out with the cast … Mr. Peachum, exploiter of beggars, as he "choreographs," "directs" and "styles" The grotesque deformities of his pupils," attempting to discover the most hideous and shocking appearance possible, in order tog more money into the beggars' hands and then into his … The beggars themselves, an extremely disciplined group that almost succeed in being disgusting, moving and horrifying at the same time, as they scream at the audience before the play starts; Noticing what The "spectators" are wearing, they hurl it back in a fury of envious scornful hatred: "Green shirt! Big black boots! White coat! Glean gray pants! Big red tie! Clean blue socks!"

The mounting delirium becomes a brilliant metaphor for the social barriers and disease that infest the play … And finally, a shattering scene with five filthy whores and one shell of a man that I found the most unforgettable moment in the whole thing. As each whore comes up to the man, one by one, they twist, writhe, coil, spit, hiss, shake, and hump in an obscenely elegant parody of seduction among the jungle beasts. And all the time the man stares forward blankly, stands immobile, and finally leaves, perhaps to dream on his silent, private organsm. It was a beautiful scene, probably one of the best love scenes in all musical theatre.

The music, conducted by Jim Meyer, was excellently played, with an especially confident feel for the often elusive slinky charm of Kurt Weill's work. The balance with the singers was fine under the circumstance, though it is unfortunate that, because of the spatial set-up of Stone Theatre, the music couldn't have been up front, louder, clearer, and even mare biting.

I've already mentioned the commitment of the Stone production to Brecht's intentions, its unfailing eye for the ugly detail and dark undertone. The other outstanding quality of the Stone version, in the same vein, was the beautiful ensemble work of the actors. I think I can honestly say that this was the first true example of consistently fine large ensemble acting I've seen since I've been at Amherst.

I hate to single people out, but Stephen Collins' Macheath was remarkable for its intense, greasy understatement. It reminded me of Alec Guiness a little. The perfect evocation of the banality of evil, the sleekness of obscenity, and the hollowness of decay Like chrome on a moldy coffin. Sarah Harris' Mrs. Peachurn was a bitter comic gem, a genuinely brilliant slump of a woman. Her command of every nuance of the role was authoritative and firm. James Ellis, spluttering sickness all over the place as Mr. Peachum, conveyed exploitation with the mania of a mad carny barker. And finally, Joanna Albrecht, as the cynical whore Jenny, managed to fuse movement, voice and intensity into a haunting portrait that was so painfully honest and simple that it was like watching an X-ray. As for her subterranean voice, suffice 'to say it was magnificently drained and so low as to bring broken glass together again.

I'm sure Keating had incredible problems with Stone Theatre, an astoundingly difficult place to work in; he adopted to its strange spatial handicaps with unobtrusive flexibility, because of the cold, tiny playing area, the play was perhaps even more "cerebral" than Brecht desired. As Penny sang her most moving song with extraordinary facial expression, the audience was busy reading impersonal slides of the lyrics that were projected on the wall behind her. I don't know how many people missed her face, but it was an extreme Brecht-alienation bit if I ever saw one, probably too extreme. In a place like Stone, something is lost and something gained.

On the other hand, the production did suffer from a lack of scope sheer spatial scope. The director could not create the vastness of a Hogarthian tableau, or the black depths of a Bosch nightmare, and thus some of the immediately physical impact that the work could have were lost. But luckily Keating didn't try for such effects, and he kept everything beautiful within the boundaries of the theatre, which provides refreshing intimacy. If nothing else, this is a fine example of art adapting to the opportunities of its environment and realizing its intentions within the strict limitations of that environrnent, and that's an example worth having.

Another problem with Stone is that it exists in a sort of limbo. The audience is so close, as I said, that vast physical scope can't be realized. But the audience is not really in a position to be submerged or surrounded in the motions of the play either, because of the stupid structure of the house, riddled as it is with inane pillars, and a dull playing area Because of this latter problem, one or two attempts at Living Theatre-type intervention with the audience were only successful in a half-hearted middling way.

But tiny problems could never undermine a foundation as solid as that upholding the Stone production: a foundation built on passion, conviction, and commitment to the whole. What simple qualities, so necessary for any artistic effort, and yet how rare lit is to find them. They're here, in abundance, at Stone, in the heart of the Pioneer Valley. Yeah, right in the heart.

Source: Amherst Student archives