Thursday, November 1, 2007
A fair amount of flesh is involved in the all-out bawdy “I’m bad, very bad” version of The Threepenny Opera at the Western Stage. In the in-the-round closeness of the Studio Theater at Hartnell College, pale flesh oozes out of torn stockings and overflows the clinging bustiers of the whores—tough, hostile and ready to scrap, each defiant-looking bawd of them. And then the stolid pack of thieves who haven’t seen the sun—nary a peek—for a very long season, beefing sweatily over vests and overalls. These are crooked lads and bad girls, you can tell by their scowls.
Writer Bertold Brecht peopled his plays with uncommon common folk, the inglorious poor who engage in commerce just like the rich, but commerce of a different nature. His cast of characters in Threepenny would be a creepy lot if they weren’t singing…very, very well.
It’s a simple tale of cross and double-cross in the underworld of Victorian London: Think Oliver Twist without cute children. Instead, there’s a Cabaret -like interlocutor, the Ballad Singer, played by Western Stage veteran William J. Wolak.
The drama begins as the Singer enters with a light, turns on the atmosphere, makes sense of the minimal set, and establishes the tone of the evening as he opens with Kurt Weill’s music in “Mack the Knife.” Sure and clear as he is in this finale number first, Wolak’s voice is just not strong enough to meet the challenge of almost swinging the mouthfuls of packed-tight storytelling poetry set to a difficult rhythm and melody. To his credit, Wolak pulls it off by sheer chutzpa, at least enough to get the party started. By the time he’s finished we have met the sinister glares of the complete cast and inspected the boom thrusting from a balcony from which characters descend into the underclasses.
From the opening to the final bow, Western Stage runs full tilt with the story. A fantastic house orchestra under the direction of Don Dally provides the raucous backbone to Weill’s melodies. Brecht’s much-referencing text gets on top of some of the cast, but most sing the story with the naturalness that’s required.
After the rousing opening a few audience members left, possibly overwhelmed by the explicit lyrics or the underwear of the underworld, as the king of beggars and his overtaxed wife, Mr. and Mrs. Peachum, introduce their family business, an army of beggar-thieves. They are outraged to learn that their daughter, Polly, plans to marry the legendary murderer, pimp and thief, MacHeath (Mac the Knife), not because they’re worried about Polly’s happiness, but because they’ll be losing such a valuable worker. From this warm domestic moment we follow Polly (Kay Akervik) the um, ingénue, as she meets MacHeath, (Joe Niesen) in a wedding scene attended by the beefy chorus.
Nieson plays his Mac campily, establishing a tone that infects the whole production. We aren’t supposed to love these characters, nor think them realistic, but the very edge upon which Brecht builds his story depends on bringing his characters some Darwinian complexity—sure they’re bad, but that’s how society made them, and they’re still human, after all. But gliding on the slippery surface of that cutting edge, Niesen nevertheless adeptly dispatches his Brechtian lines (“Art isn’t nice, you morons!”) and dances Lorenzo Aragon’s choreography that takes full advantage of the limitations of the space.
As amoral and flamboyant as Niesen is, Akervik is as sensible and solid—an unlikely attraction—yet Akervik dispatches a convincing “Pirate Jenny,” speculating playfully about blowing up London. Perhaps if she were just a little more dimensional a character, the contrast between bombast and vulnerability would be more poignant. Dawn Flood is the hardest of whores as Jenny Diver and dispatches her “Solomon Song” with élan, while Samantha Harris’ Bartholomew wields a gorgeous soprano effectively as the pathetic Lucy Brown.
Of all the cast, Donna Federico as Mrs. Peachum has the voice and the grit to sing Weill convincingly. In the “Ballad of the Prisoner of Sexuality” she is positively delightful, scooping up the low notes like a diving predator and holding them with bravura, vamping with complete abandon. Hers is only one of many provocative Brechtian anthems packed with unforgettable lines: Mac and Polly sing the sentimental “in that old whorehouse where we built our nest”; the cast in one (there are three) finale singing Brecht’s Marxist overture “all humans live by doing wrong,” and lots of funny ribald lyrics that would be just plain bad taste to print.
Weill’s melodies are hard to master, especially the emphatic descending intervals that are so important to the jazziness of the score. The Western Stage underworld chorus does a terrific job overall in nailing these. Director Jon Patrick Selover’s Threepenny Opera isn’t for the fainthearted, but then neither does it plumb the depths that Brecht and Weill dared to imagine.
THE THREEPENNY OPERA continues at Studio Theater, Hartnell College, 156 Homestead Ave., Salinas, through Nov. 11. 8pm/Fri-Sat; 2pm/Sun. $20/adults; $17/children, seniors, military. 375-2111 or westernstage.com.