7 Stages is currently running the legendary musical play “The Threepenny Opera,” book and lyrics by Bertolt Brecht, music by Kurt Weill. It is directed by Michael Haverty and Bryan Mercer, who is also the music director. The show will run through Sept. 25 in Little Five Points.
When I say “legendary,” I do not use the word lightly. On Aug. 31, 1928, 88 years ago, this “entertainment with music” had its debut in dizzy, decadent Berlin, which at the time was a madcap retreat from reality, the wildest, raunchiest city on earth.
It’s true that many Berliners in the 20’s scrambled just to stay alive amid street fighting and food shortages. But the lucky few who had managed to hold onto some cash joined with adventurous tourists and bohemian artists and turned Berlin into the hottest pleasure town this side of ancient Rome.
Open drug use, prostitution, and easy acceptance of nudity and transvestism (can you imagine?) all flourished. (I’m not suggesting there is nudity in the current show.)
I mention all this for two reasons: It became apparent this “amorality” could not last because there were rumblings of the the descending darkness—the Nazis; and because the ambience of the city, and of “The Threepenny Opera,” was and is incredible. For the record, Hitler came to full power on Jan. 30, 1933, preaching a twisted puritanism. The party was over.
Before that happened, there was this play. Brecht, of course, is a seminal figure in world theatre with his concern for works of social significance, “theatre for learners,” epic theatre, and his insistence that the audience distance themselves from the characters, awaken their own energy, and make decisions.
Director Haverty told “American Theatre” that he feels Atlanta is dying for something like this. He quotes Brecht: “There will be singing about the dark times.” Yet the triumph of Haverty’s darkly sensual, amoral “Threepenny” is that it’s also funny “and speaks to the troubles going on in our world.”
By the way, both Brecht and Weill got out of Germany just in time; this work was, of course, banned by the Nazis.
The play has been called “an opera for beggars and whores”; while based on “The Beggar’s Opera,” a parody of Handel’s operas written by John Gay in 1728, “Threepenny” nonetheless satirizes operas and operettas.
We have a notorious bandit and womanizer named Macheath (Aaron Strand), sometimes called Mack the Knife. The setting is in London’s Soho, just before Queen Victoria’s coronation. We’re in Mr. Peachum’s (Kevin Stillwell) flat; he runs an unusual business: He equips and trains beggars in return for a cut of whatever they can beg. His wife, Mrs. Peachum (a tour-de-force performance by Don Finney), notices their daughter, Polly (Stephanie Lloyd) did not come home last night.
Macheath has decided to marry Polly. The Chief of Police, Tiger Brown (Adam Lowe), is an old friend of Macheath’s and will probably protect him, if he can. But first, Mack decides to visit his favorite brothel, where he sees his ex-lover Jenny (DorothyV. Bell-Polk); they sing the “Pimp’s Ballad” about their days together. Another girlfriend, Lucy (Jessica De Maria) arrives. I can’t tell you too much of the plot; it must be experienced. The program notes: “Never has singing about the darkness been so full of life, of laughter, of fight, than in ‘The Threepenny Opera.’” I agree.
It’s been said that “Threepenny” can’t be done with pure singers, nor with pure actors. Each role calls for specific qualities, and the 7 Stages cast shines like a black diamond. Every person I’ve mentioned is outstanding, including Aaron Strand’s Macheath (he’s probably a tad younger than most actors who’ve played the role—but what a powerful voice he has). I love it when Jessica De Maria seductively waltzes into the audience as she sings; this show, you see, is all about seduction.
Other excellent cast members include Nicolette Emanuelle, Jed Drummond, Tad Cameron, Meg Harkins, Shannon Murphy, Evan Hynes, and Claire Christie.
I haven’t mentioned director Michael Haverty’s video design: Using live-feed video projection he suggests the black and white aesthetic of German expressionist cinema, especially Weimar Republic filmmakers Fritz Lang (“Metropolis”) and Robert Wiene. I must also say that 7 Stages is the perfect theatre for this show; with its all-black walls and tall ceiling, one feels immersed in a murky cocoon that’s about to give birth to—what? It’s carnal, dark, and almost certainly not nice.
I’m sorry I can’t give credit here to the entire creative team, but they all deserve huge plaudits. The music is indescribably beckoning and seductive (that word again).
7 Stages’ “Threepenny Opera” is extraordinary—a rare chance to see a world classic that has an enduring life and irresistible vitality. Remember the audience in the film version of “Cabaret”? It’s as though they’ve come to life and are now the performers; they are grotesque, delicious, and must not be missed.
For tickets and information, visit 7Stages.org.