REVEIW OF TTHE THREE PENNY OPERA
THE THREE PENNY OPERA
Reviewed by Jeffrey R Smith of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle
In 1927: when Bertolt Brecht wrote THE THREE PENNY OPERA—or more correctly stated: adapted or revised from the 18th century THE BEGGAR'S OPERA by John Gay—the Weimar Republic of Germany was in the stultifying grip of a liberal democracy. Deficits, high unemployment, soaring public debt, bludgeoning war indentureship, profligate government spending and impending whirl wind inflation were the hallmarks that graphitized the German political and economic landscape. It seems that whenever GDP growth is on the ropes, some variant of THE BEGGAR'S OPERA gets trotted out onto stage; present times being no exception.
Currently the Shotgun Players of Berkeley are performing a permutation of THE BEGGAR'S OPERA specifically tailored for Queen Elizabeth's Golden Jubilee in 2002. Perhaps in a few years, still yet another revision will be set in Great American Recession of 2009.
Historical and prefatory remarks aside, THE THREE PENNY OPERA as performed on the Ashby Stage is stunning: not to be missed. The music, directed by David Moschler is eclectic. Kurt Weill who wrote the original musical score was conspicuously influenced by American Jazz. MR Moschler has added an element of British Punk; clearly tipping his hat to Sid Vicious and the Sex Pistols. While the plot is carried by the script, the theme is supported by the music. In a sense Brecht's show has come full circle: the original Punk artists, writers and musicians and poets were Brechtian actors; now Punk is influencing the staging of Brecht and Brechtian actors.
Traditionally a set designer designs the stage area; in the case of Nina Ball, her design involves thematically reconfiguring the entire theatre: it is difficult to decide where THREE PENNY stops and Berkeley begins. Reminiscent of the set for BLADERUNNER, her set is gritty, decaying, crumbling, deteriorating: slipping into entropy: a metaphor for the netherworld of the economically disenfranchised and the wake of failed capitalism.
Costuming, by Mark Koss, is an excellent match for the set and setting and helps to answer the question: "What happens to clothes when ever Saint Vincent de Paul and the Salvation Army refuse to take them off your hands?" Imaginative, artful, resourceful and inventive are a few of MR Koss's obvious strengths.
Remarkably good voices like that of Kelsey Venter are matched with superb musicians like Nick Antipa on trumpet, Daveen DiGiacomo on piano/organ, Adrian Gormley on alto sax and clarinet and Eric Marshall on bass. The result ensures that the music and the singing live up to the empyreal acting standards set by director Susannah Martin.
Jeff Wood as MacHeath, whom we know as Mack the Knife, is endearing and stupendous. MR Wood serves as a scary reminder that sociopaths and psychopaths are very likeable characters despite the broken hearts, hemoglobin, empty purses and corpses that inconveniently and invariably litter their work and living spaces.
The irreverent THREE PENNY OPERA was banned in Berlin in 1933. It dared to ask the questions: "Who is the greater criminal: he who robs a bank or he who founds one?" and "Who is the bigger criminal, the one operating with the crowbar or the one issuing the stock certificate?" Perhaps in the next version it might ask, "Who is the bigger villain: the man who busts the bank, or the man who parlays federal bail out money into his bonus pay?"
For a stunning, highly original performance that you are certain to both enjoy and find inconveniently relevant, get thee to the Ashby Stage and the Shotgun Players for THE THREE PENNY OPERA. For reservations: www.shotgunplayers.org or get on the cell and call 510-841-6500 when you are not driving.