On Friday the 20th, we went downtown to the Off The Wall Theatre for their production of The Threepenny Opera.
Every city with any sizable quantity of theatre has one producer or group that enjoys shocking the audience, and Off The Wall, under the leadership of Dale Gutzman, is Milwaukee's.
Shows at the Off The Wall are quite intimate and interactive in part due to the smallness of the space (a storefront spot that could be called the Hole in the Wall with perfect truth), and in this case, interaction began with the panhandler working outside the door, who was, of course, part of the company. Other members of the cast circulated among the audience before the formal start, soliciting money or--other things. Gutzman, acting as usher, also chatted with audience members, gleefully informing us that this was not going to be "Sound of Music," or "Annie"*.
The tone was set when Mary C. DeBattista as "Jenny" set the stage with a full-throated rendition of "Mack the Knife." This new translation let us know that this wasn;t even our father's "Mack", describing the titular character as not only a murderer, but also a rapist and child molester.
The dashing highwayman, Captain Macheath, of John Gay's Beggar's Opera
is nowhere to be found here, nor is the elegant criminal of the 20th century, with his white kid gloves and ivory-headed cane. Instead, Jeremy C. Welter effectively portrays Macheath as a dull-eyed reflexively violent yob, whose murderous impulses are only matched by (and probably driven by) his sexual ones.
As the play opens we meet Mr. and Mrs. Peachum (David Flores and Marilyn White) , who run the Begging racket in London. They are appalled to discover that their daughter, Polly, has eloped with Macheath, because they are afraid Macheath will use her to muscle in on their operation, and start scheming against him.
Meanwhile, Macheath and Polly are celebrating their "wedding" in a stables belonging to the Duke of Devonshire. Polly is at first upset by casual revelations that several people have been murdered and homes looted to coldly furnish forth the wedding feast, but then, encouraged in part by Macheath's cocaine, enters into the spirit and entertains Mack's gang by singing "Pirate Jenny". Liz Mistele, who plays Polly, has a very girlish look and voice, so her rendition of this song is quite different from the paint-stripping intensity we have heard in the past, but her version works very well. The fey mad-girl look and delivery actually in some ways evoke the disappointed and resentful hotel maid of the song better than the older, tougher sounding voices do. Then, Tiger Brown, London's Chief of Police, enters, revealing he is here to wish his old companion Macheath well. Conversation reveals that not only has Brown "fixed" any evidence of Macheath's crimes, they are past lovers also, and sing the "Cannon Song" about their days in the Army together in Iraq.
(I wonder what it says about me that the bloody-minded racism of the "Cannon Song" made more uncomfortable than the sex, violence, or other general depravity in the play, with the exception of the utter nihilism expressed in "What Keeps A Man Alive'?)
Things start going bad for Macheath when Peachum blackmails Brown with the threat of having thousands of beggars disrupt Prince William's upcoming coronation (Meaning the William of our day, son of Prince Charles and grandson of Queen Elizabeth) unless Macheath is arrested and hanged first. Mrs. Peachum suborns the London whores, lead by Jenny, who once whored for Macheath, to turn him in for a reward, knowing that Macheath won't be able to stay away from them even while on the run ("The Ballad of Sexual Obsession").
The sordid plot winds to its twisted conclusion with plenty of time for commentary on the ills of the world, the corruption of the rich and powerful, and the plight of the poor, which is still as timely as when Gay--let alone Brecht and company**--wrote it. As Macheath says, "What good is robbing a bank, compared with founding a bank?" Indeed.
The small combo played Kurt Weill's impudent score with verve and skill, and the cast delivered the songs and dialog with raw emotional power. They aren't pretty songs, and don't call for pretty singing. All in all, it was an excellent and bracing performance.
* I didn't get a chance to suggest to Gutzman that he should DO "Annie" in a similar style. After all, Miss Hannigan and company would fit right in. "It's A Hard Luck Life," eh?
** Gutzman is known for doing his homework, so I was interested to read his notes to the effect that most of the book of Die Dreigroshenoper
was in fact written by Elizabeth Hauptman, Brecht's secretary and lover, who incorporated some of Brecht's poetry. Brecht was on vacation during most of the creative period, returned at the last minute, wrote the lyrics for "Mack the Knife," and put his name on the play. Later, he cheated both Hauptman and Weill out of most of their share of the profits of the successful show. So does life imitate art, or what?