When the Brooklyn Academy of Music announced that it was hosting the Berliner Ensemble’s production of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) as part of the 2011-12 Next Wave Festival, I knew I wanted to see it. I brought the season brochure to my frequent theater partner, Diana, so we could see if we could put together four Next Wave events in common to make up a discount and to settle on dates. Threepenny was one of the first productions in the fall season, and I was afraid it would sell out if we delayed too long. This was especially so because the production’s director was Robert Wilson, the renowned U.S. experimental theater artist; considering the three elements of the show—the play, the company, and the director—I was sure it would be hugely popular with the BAM audience. I would turn out to be prophetic: the run was sold out completely weeks before it opened and I overheard a BAM employee explain to a spectator at another Next Wave performance that very few ticket-holders canceled or didn’t claim their seats. (Scalpers were out the night I attended and while I was waiting in the lobby for Diana, I myself was approached to sell my seats.)
Unfortunately, I was also prophetic in my prediction that coordinating with Diana would be difficult. First, she absconded with the brochure, so I didn’t have it on hand to refer to. Second, she was tied up with personal affairs that kept her in New Jersey a lot of the time so I had trouble reaching her by landline, cell, or e-mail. By the time I did pin her down and we made decisions, the tickets had already gone on sale to the public (though we’d eventually decided not to take out a subscription because we couldn’t put together four events we really wanted to see), and when I called the box office, all that was left for the short residency of the Ensemble (4-8 October) were “partial view” seats. I knew that if I passed up this chance and tried to reach Diana to inform her and let her voice her preference, we wouldn’t have had any choices—it would have deteriorated to no seats available at all. So I made the decision for both of us to take the bad seats rather than not see the production at all. Happily, I made the right choice not only for me, but for Diana as well (and she’s less likely to be forgiving or accommodating than I am). So when we went over to Fort Greene on Thursday, 6 October, for the 7:30 performance of Threepenny at the Howard Gilman Opera House, the 2100-seat auditorium in the Peter Jay Sharp Building on Lafayette Avenue, we found that our seats were under the low overhang of the house-right box seats. Not only did we lose the view of anything above about halfway up the proscenium opening, but also anything to the far left of the stage. The performance was in German with English supertitles, but we also had no view of any title screen so we didn’t have the benefit of the translation of the dialogue and lyrics. (I’ll never understand why, knowing that those seats are out of sight of the screens—this isn’t the first time anyone’s sat there, for goodness’ sake—they don’t install a small screen under the boxes on each side of the house. Personally, I’d rather see a return to the old earphone system, but that’s labor-intensive.)
Fortunately for me, anyway, I still understand enough German that my familiarity with the play and the synopsis in the program helped me follow the performance quite well. That plus the excellence of the acting and directing made the experience not perfect, but well worth the decision I made. (Happily, Diana, who doesn’t speak any German, felt the same way and said so.) I had a bit of a stiff neck after the three-hour show, craning as I had to to see some of the stage we had left to us, but given the choice of seeing it this way or not seeing it at all, I made the right one. As one of the characters in Threepenny says, Gott sei dank! (“Thank God!”).
First, a little history and personal positioning. Brecht and Weill wrote Threepenny in 1928, an adaptation of The Beggar’s Opera, John Gay’s 1728 parody of Handel’s operas. (Though the performance was in German, the Next Wave presentation was billed as The Threepenny Opera, its English title, so that’s what I’ll call it here.) Poet-playwright Brecht and composer Weill, two young novices (Brecht was 30 and Weill, 28), were satirizing the traditional operas and popular operettas of their day. The play premièred at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in Berlin on 31 August 1928 and was a great success, running over 400 performances. It opened in English in New York City at Broadway’s Empire Theatre on 13 April 1933, lasting only 12 performances. An Off-Broadway presentation at the Theatre de Lys (now the Lucille Lortel) in Greenwich Village, opening on 10 March 1954, stayed on for 96 shows. That production reopened at the same theater on 20 September 1956, however, and ran until 17 December 1961, over 2600 performances—a huge and unequivocal hit. (With a book and lyrics translated by composer Marc Blitzstein, this production included Lotte Lenya, Weill’s widow, as Jenny, the role she’d played in the Berlin première. I believe it was this version to which Bobby Darin paid tribute in his 1959 rendition of “Mack the Knife”—the pop version of “Die Moritat vom Mackie Messer,” “The [Death] Ballad of Mack the Knife”—in which he invokes Lenya by name. I was 12 when the song was released, and I loved it immediately—I was way into rock ‘n’ roll already—but I had no idea who or what Lotte Lenya was. Of course, I wouldn’t have known who Kurt Weill or Bertolt Brecht were then, either. Years later—1963, when I saw From Russia with Love—when I found out, I thought it was even neater in retrospect! I’m such a sucker!!)
The script was translated into many languages—ultimately 18—and between the 1930s and 1950s the play was presented in England, Austria, Switzerland, France, Poland, Hungary, Finland, Russia, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Japan, and the Scandinavian countries, among many others, ultimately totaling over 10,000 performances. It was broadcast on radio and adapted for film; portions of it were recorded in many versions on vinyl, tape, and CD. It was even rendered into a puppet play by the Stockholm Marionette Theater of Fantasy (Broadway, 1966). It became arguably Brecht’s most popular and well-known work, especially among less adventurous entertainment-seekers. (It’s less overtly political than Brecht’s later plays, written as it was before the playwright committed to Marxism.) The Threepenny Opera was revived at Lincoln Center in 1976, a production of the New York Shakespeare Festival starring Raul Julia as Macheath and directed by Richard Foreman that ran for 307 performances. In 1989, a Broadway production starring rocker Sting as Macheath played 65 regular performances, and in 2006 at Studio 54, the Roundabout Theatre Company staged a revival starring Alan Cumming and featuring Cyndi Lauper as Jenny in a script adapted by playwright Wallace Shawn. I saw the ’76 Foreman revival with Julia at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, which used a new translation by John Willett and Ralph Manheim (from which the titles at BAM were drawn), and I thought it was excellent. I remember specifically thinking that it was an exemplary rendering of Brecht’s theater ideas in a commercial Broadway venue, demonstrating what I understood by the distancing technique (the famous Verfremdungseffekt) in a late-20th-century application. I still feel that way, but I now have an even better vision of what a Brechtian production of Threepenny could look like in the now-21st-century theater. (I’m really building this show up, aren’t I? I hope my report can live up to the hype.) Wilson’s Threepenny started at the BE, where he’s directed other productions, in September 2007.
Brecht, born in 1898 in Augsburg, Bavaria, started writing for local newspapers in 1919 and later that year, his first theater criticism began to appear. In 1918, Brecht composed Baal, his first full-length play, and the next year he wrote Drums in the Night (Trommeln in der Nacht), his first play to be staged which opened in Munich in September 1922. In 1920 or ’21, Brecht started to attend the performances of Karl Valentin who presented a political cabaret in beer halls. Brecht compared Valentin to Chaplin, whom he admired greatly and held up as a model for Epic Theater acting. The budding playwright continued to write innovative plays and poetry, and in March 1924, he staged his own Edward II as his first directorial effort and the beginnings of his Epic Theater ideas. In September, he got a job as an assistant dramaturg for Max Reinhardt at the Deutsches Theater, bringing the young writer and, now, director to Berlin. His first play produced in Berlin, In the Jungle of Cities (Im Dickicht der Städte), opened in October 1924.
In September 1926, Man Is Man (Mann ist Mann) opened in Darmstadt, the first play by Brecht’s “collective,” a loose group of friends and colleagues that the playwright would depend on for the rest of his career. That same year, Brecht began studying Marxism seriously. With this group of artists, Brecht began to develop the theatrical theories and style with which he would become identified. In 1927, Brecht became associated with Irwin Piscator’s theater where the young writer learned many of the fundamental principles that would become the foundations of his own Epic Theater theories. Piscator’s overtly political theater was also an important lesson for the budding Marxist artist. That same year, Brecht began collaborating with Kurt Weill, starting with the Mahagonny project. The following year, Brecht and Weill adapted Gay’s Beggar’s Opera as The Threepenny Opera, which became the biggest success of the ‘20s in Berlin theater. In 1929, the two produced Happy End, but it wasn’t successful; 1930’s The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny) opened in Leipzig and caused an uproar in the audience when Nazis began protesting. The new musical theater work, however, had a triumphant première in Berlin the next year.
Between 1930 and ’33, Brecht worked with his collective on his Lehrstücke, the teaching plays intended for small audiences of young communists, students, or workers. In 1933, Adolf Hitler was elected Chancellor of Germany and Brecht left in February, fleeing first to Copenhagen. In April 1939, with war approaching, he left Denmark for Stockholm, Sweden. In April 1940, Germany invaded Denmark and Norway and Brecht fled Sweden for Helsinki, Finland. Obtaining a visa for the United States in May 1941, Brecht settled in Malibu, California, where he expressed his opposition to the German Reich and fascism. He composed many of his greatest plays as well, including Life of Galileo (Leben des Galilei, 1937-39/45-47), Mother Courage and Her Children (Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder, 1938-39), The Good Person of Szechwan (Der gute Mensch von Sezuan, 1939-42), The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (Der aufhaltsame Aufstieg des Arturo Ui, 1941), and The Caucasian Chalk Circle (Der kaukasische Kreidekreis, 1943-45), among others. He also collaborated with expatriate German film director Fritz Lang and composer Hanns Eisler on the film Hangmen Also Die! (1943), based on the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, a principal architect of the “Final Solution” who was known as “The Hangman of Prague.”
With the advent of the Cold War, Brecht was blacklisted in Hollywood and was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities on 30 October 1947. Brecht denied membership in the Communist Party (a lifelong Marxist, Brecht never joined the Party) and gave no information on others; however, his HUAC testimony caused others to accuse him of betrayal and Brecht returned to Europe the very next day. He settled in Switzerland until 1949 when an offer by the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) of his own theater and company drew him back to Berlin. The Berliner Ensemble opened in the Deutsches Theater (where Brecht had gotten his first job in Berlin) in what was then East Berlin in January 1949; the renovation of the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm (where Threepenny had premièred in 1928) was completed in 1954 and became the Ensemble’s longtime home. The playwright and director died of a heart attack on 14 August 1956 at the age of 58.
The Berliner Ensemble continued under the direction of his widow, actress Helene Weigel, and then a line of German theater artists, most famously playwright Heiner Müller in the 1990s. The company made several international tours even during the Cold War when the Soviet bloc kept its artists largely holed up behind the Iron Curtain. When I was in the army, my only overseas assignment was to West Berlin and I wanted desperately to go to the East to see a performance by the company that perpetuated Brecht’s theatrical heritage. I was frustrated by the Cold War, the same atmosphere that ultimately propelled Brecht to East Berlin. As an intelligence officer, I wasn’t permitted by my own side to enter Soviet-controlled territory; I was never allowed to go to East Berlin. In 2½ years, I never saw Brecht’s company perform his own works the way he ordained they should be staged. I didn’t get that chance until over 37 years after I left Berlin. Furthermore, this is apparently the 62-year-old Ensemble’s first visit to the United States. Given all that, it’s probably little wonder that I was thrilled to see this Threepenny Opera.
Now, I’m not going to write a treatise on Brechtian theater. Some of that may come up in my description and discussion of the performance, but that’s as may be. Otherwise, there are plenty of sources, both on paper and on line, for anyone interested in what Brecht believed and practiced. I will give a short synopsis of the plot, however, unlike the way I treated Oklahoma! in my last play report.
Written in three acts (but performed at BAM in two parts, with the break after the second act), Threepenny’s scenario is from Gay’s “ballad opera,” but transposed to the days before the coronation of Queen Victoria (1837). In act one, Macheath (“Mack the Knife,” or “Mackie Messer” in German, played at BAM by Stefan Kurt), leader of a gang of thieves, secretly marries Polly Peachum (Stefanie Stappenbeck). Her parents, Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum (Jürgen Holtz), the king of London’s beggars, and his wife, Celia (Traute Hoess), are furious and plot Macheath’s arrest. Tiger Brown (Axel Werner), London’s police chief and an old friend of Macheath’s who’s been protecting the thief all these years, visits Mack’s hideout. In the second act, Polly warns Macheath that her father plans to have him arrested, and Mack prepares to flee London. On the way, though, he stops at his favorite brothel to see his old lover, Jenny Diver (Angela Winkler), but he’s caught because Mrs. Peachum had bribed Jenny to turn Macheath in. In jail, Macheath is visited by both Polly and Lucy Brown (Anna Greener), Tiger’s daughter who helps him escape. When Peachum finds out, he coerces Brown into rearresting Macheath by threatening to let his beggars loose at the coronation parade. As act three opens, Macheath is found at the house of Suky Tawdry, another whore, and Brown arrests him and prepares to have him executed. Back in jail, when Macheath’s friends fail to raise enough bribe money to free him again, Mack prepares to die on the gallows outside his cell. Suddenly, a messenger from the queen (Gerd Kunath) arrives and declares that Macheath has been pardoned and must be freed immediately. Furthermore, the envoy announces that Mack has been granted a pension, a title, and a palace.
Wilson’s production, though set in the early 19th century, was costumed by Jacques Reynaud in the style of the Weimar cabarets (probably the kind performed by Karl Valentin and which also inspired Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret). The visual effect was reminiscent of some of the paintings and caricatures of Georg Grosz (who came from the visual wing of the same artistic milieu as Brecht and Weill). Nearly everything was in black and white, like old photos or silent film; even the make-up was pasty white (which, among other references, may have been an evocation of the 18th century of John Gay—when the upper classes took arsenic to make their skin pale—as well as Kabuki, which had been an inspiration for Brecht). There were touches of red, including one set of essentially giant red ribbons stretching across the stage, and the deus-ex-machina messenger of the queen was draped in a long, bright red, velvet cape. (The final curtain was also crimson velvet.) The rest was essentially monochromatic and high-contrast like a movie such as Robert Wiene’s 1920 Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. (It also seemed as if the whole company, with the exceptions of Mr. and, especially, Mrs. Peachum and Constable Smith [Uli Pleẞmann], went on some kind of extreme diet—or Wilson hired the skinniest actors in Germany. Axel Werner’s a beanpole of about six-and-a-half feet who may have weighed all of 150 pounds! As if to accentuate his height and thinness, his Tiger Brown wore a top hat.)
A further word about the make-up: the white-painted faces had accents of black around the eyes and the mouths that emphasized the unnatural appearance of the actors. In the same way that some Kabuki characters are made up in Kumadori style that outlines the face’s musculature, the Threepenny actors had painted expressions like weird (one review said “dead”) dolls or macabre clowns. (Kumadori is much more elaborate than the make-up here was, but the technique is analogous.) If you picture just about any rendering of The Joker in a Batman movie or the TV show, particularly Jack Nicholson in the 1989 film or Cesar Romero in the TV series of the ‘60s (sans the red grimace), you’d be just about right on. Macheath also had marcelled corn-yellow hair, unnatural and stark in comparison to the other characters; Polly was also blond, but her hair was more natural-looking and didn’t stand out. A few of the women and one of Macheath’s thieves had brick-red hair. This was all enhanced because the backdrop was formed by black curtains against which the ghostly characters really stood out. (I’ll get to the sets shortly, but they were all discrete set pieces in the center of the stage so the black background was always prominent.)
Wilson, educated as an architect who’s worked as a sculptor and installation artist as well as a director, took charge of the other design elements, including the set (co-designed by Serge von Arx) and lighting. (I might describe the actors’ movements as “sculptural,” too.) If you’re at all familiar with Wilson’s stage work—I’ve seen a number of his productions, including Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights (which I saw in 1992), The Black Rider (1993), Alice (1995), The Temptation of St. Anthony (2004), and Fables de la Fontaine (2007; with the Comédie Française)—you know that he’s renowned for his physical staging and visual work. (He’s also known for the stylized movements of his actors, and I’ll get to that in a bit.) In the New York Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz calls the Gilman production “a living art installation.” For Threepenny, Wilson was clearly visually inspired by the German expressionistic film of the ‘20s (like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari which I mentioned earlier). Set elements were fragmentary and exaggerated or stylized to evoke a psychological state. The jail cell in which Macheath is incarcerated, for example, was represented only by a single barred wall in front (with lighted bars wide enough apart for a man easily to climb through)—possibly to indicate how easily people like Mack could come and go at will. The gallows behind the jail cell in the last scene was one of the few realistic elements in the production, depicting the apparent very real danger Macheath’s life is in at that moment. The backdrop that appeared behind the scenes in Mack’s thieves’ den was a series of vertical and diagonal light tubes that called to mind the off-kilter remains of the World Trade Center right after the towers fell. The image was so close to the iconic view of the buildings’ exoskeleton that I can’t help but think the parallel was intentional.
In all, the atmosphere of Wilson’s Threepenny felt a lot like that in movies set in Victorian London, like Sherlock Holmes mysteries or Jack the Ripper thrillers: an alley or a tunnel somewhere where it’s dark and dank and scary. The shadows permit no color to come though and everything you see and hear is exaggerated and threatening. Except that in Wilson’s vision, it was also cold—like ice. There was no warmth available anywhere, not even in the characters’ veins, and it’s not an agreeable place. As one of Brecht’s underworld types says, “It’s not nice, it’s art” (“Das ist Kunst und nicht net”). Ben Brantley in the New York Times describes the production as “as cold as a body on a mortuary table”; in Philadelphia’s Broad Street Review, Carol Rocamora records that Threepenny was a “blast of icy air that blew through the Brooklyn Academy of Music.” Death and cold were recurring images invoked by most reviewers; even the Village Voice’s Michael Feingold, who rejected the production and apparently thoroughly dislikes Wilson, calls the production “gelid,” though in his case it isn’t meant to be complimentary.
“Minimalist” was another descriptive used often to portray the show’s look, especially its set. Most of the scenery, including the set pieces—the jail cell, the “WTC skeleton” (my interpretation, of course; I don’t know what else to call it)—was made of light. (Other than furniture, only the gallows wasn’t.) Tubes of light made up the WTC structure and the jail bars, as I said, but light played a big part in other scenes, too. The opening moment, with the front curtain closed as the characters moved across the apron, was backed with flashing Op-Art-like swirls of light and other backdrops were similarly constructed of illuminated geometric designs. Needless to say, however, the lights were white and cold, of course.
This brings me to the movement of the actors. That opening scene was flat and one-dimensional as the actors moved across from stage right to left, facing the audience for the most part. Their movements were mechanical, like automatons of some kind. In the rest of the performance, the actors moved not so much robotically, but more fluidly and not solely facing front. They were a little like marionettes with some of their strings cut. (I suppose another image I could cite would be zombies, reanimated corpses—minus the outstretched arms. The truth is, while I was watching the play, I was trying to think of a way to characterize the movement, and I obviously still haven’t.) In addition, each character had a distinctive movement pattern, some in the way they stepped and others in the way they held their torsos—like demented Monty Python “Silly Walks” routines. While John Cleese was hilariously funny when he did the bit, however, the cast of Threepenny was just bizarre. Macheath, for instance, though dressed in a black suit that actually sparkled with sequins, walked with a thin cane and seemed to be channeling Chaplin’s Little Tramp—though Kurt was a little more the boulevardier than an everyman. I’m not particularly good at interpreting symbols, but if I had to guess at what this might mean dramatically, I’d say Wilson sees Brecht’s characters as, if not dead, then as good as: they’d essentially lost their souls to capitalist pursuits. This would align with my reading of the single realistic set element—the gibbet.
After the movement, the most salient aspect of this Threepenny was the sound. Brantley even specifies that “it’s your ears that keep you awake, anxious and often enthralled” in this production. This included both the singing and speaking, as well as the effects. (I don’t agree that the aural overpowered the visual, however.) I’ll leave the singing and speaking aspect until I talk about the acting, but the sound effects were very prominent here. No non-vocal sound was produced naturally from the stage (that is, by the actors or even the set); it was all produced artificially by an off-stage technician, Joe Bauer. When anyone paid another character money, for instance, it was always in change (Macheath did toss around bills in one scene, but he wasn’t actually paying anyone) and the mimed dropping of the coins into the receiver’s hands or pocket was accompanied by the exaggerated and prolonged clanking of the silver into a metal box or can. Footfalls at significant moments, like Tiger Brown entering Macheath’s cell block, echoed artificially and loudly, as if someone wearing wooden soles were walking heavily through a tunnel. When Mack’s cell door was opened, the sound of the lock—anachronistically, an electronic lock—buzzed noisily throughout the theater. (There were several allusions to the present moment in Wilson’s performance text, and I’m sure this was meant to be one.)
Entirely in sync with the visual and aural style of the production, Wilson developed a performance style for the cast that was equally cold, artificial, and stylized. In consonance with the actors’ movements, their vocal work, especially speaking, was also idiosyncratic. (The technical name for this highly stylized and non-realistic type of performance is “eccentric” acting. Usually a comedic technique stressing the exaggerated artificiality of an actor’s behavior, it’s most commonly seen in clowning. Historically, it was a common practice in the stage work of avant-garde Russian directors Vsevolod Meyerhold and Sergei Eisenstein in the 1910s and ‘20s.) Brecht didn’t want his actors to express emotions in the conventional way, empathizing with the characters and feeling the same emotions the characters did. The eccentric performances of Wilson’s cast here were intended, I believe, to create the impression of emotions and psychological states by abstracting the physical manifestations and reducing them to simple gestures or facial expressions—say, in the way a mask communicates an emotion or psychological condition. The actor doesn’t necessarily feel anything, but strikes a pose or makes a face and we read what the character is meant to be feeling. It’s an intellectual response, as Brecht demanded. The white make-up and the padded or severely designed costumes, as well as the stylized speech and singing were all part of this scheme. For me, it worked (though I read some reviewers who were put off by the tactic). I won’t say that Wilson is a Brechtian—he’s much too taken with stage pictures and the look of his productions—but the two artists’ styles coincided in this Threepenny, along with the talents and backgrounds of the BE actors, to generate a production that I feel was Brechtian. If there was a fault along those lines, it was that Wilson’s production was too fascinating and too engaging on the level of theatricality to let me focus full-time on the circumstances that Brecht was depicting and to make a judgment of it from his portrayal. That’s a fault, however, I can overlook—even if I can imagine Brecht wincing a little at the outcome. (As an acting teacher of mine would say here: “But we don’t have Brecht’s phone number.”)
The BE’s eight-player musical ensemble, directed by Hans-Jörn Brandenburg and Stefan Rager (they’re the keyboardist and percussionist as well), produced Weill’s sound in a way that conjured up for my unlearned ear the Weimar cabarets of Berlin—at least as I imagine them from the popular renditions in film and on stage. Like the singing, this was not the tunefulness of a Broadway musical: it was harsher, more dissonant, less melodic—“The Ballad of Mack the Knife,” though the tune was recognizable as “Mack the Knife,” wasn’t the pop song I grew up with (not that I expected it to be)—and less pretty. The singers came in on the same note, more like what I’d say was Sprechstimme than musical theater singing. (The closest easily recognizable example I can think of isn’t operatic recitative, but the singing of actors like Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, Robert Preston in The Music Man, and Richard Burton in Camelot. That’s not exactly right; the Threepenny actors sang more than those other performers, but none was a Julie Andrews or Robert Goulet.) Oddly (or perhaps not), the musical performances were covered by few of the reviews I read even though it’s such an important part of Threepenny.
Brecht and Weill transposed Gay’s conflict of the beggars, thieves, and whores of London with the British aristocracy into a struggle against capitalism and the bourgeoisie. (“Das Geld regiert die Welt,” sings someone early in the play: “Money rules the world.”) The present BE production had echoes of current events, not only the on-going worldwide economic crisis and the bailouts, but the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations that started long after Wilson first staged Threepenny four years ago. There were snippets of Frank Sinatra’s and Lady Gaga’s songs (the latter of which I didn’t recognize until I read it since I don’t know Gaga’s music), the WTC image, and the modern electronic lock sound to help remind us that what Brecht saw in 1928 is still true today. In the final act, when Macheath is back in jail and expects to be executed, after having shown up at the whorehouse dressed like a Wall Street banker and tossing cash around so that it floated down like so much confetti, he makes an impassioned speech about the outrages of bankers and industrialists ("Who is the greater criminal: he who robs a bank or he who founds one?")—as if he’d been down in Zuccotti Park a few weeks ago speaking at a rally. (The audience I was in gave out a knowing laugh at these lines. Most of them had the advantage of the English titles, but I caught enough of the German at that moment to understand what Mack was saying. I haven’t checked the Willet translation or the German original to see if the lines had been altered to make the contemporary reference clearer, but somehow I think it was just a happy coincidence enhanced by Kurt’s spin on the delivery.) Of course, one of Brecht’s targets is hypocrisy, so if Macheath acts like a toff when he’s up and then like one of the disenfranchised underclass ("the 99 percent”) when he’s down, that’s the world Brecht’s showing us. The author’s other targets include greed and corruption—which are in plentiful evidence here in 2011 so Wilson and the BE don’t have to stretch far to make the connection. As Amy Lee of the Huffington Post remarks, “Wilson's version . . . has more to say about contemporary society than about history, and it delights in the parallels.”
The critical reception of the BAM staging of Threepenny was almost universally positive. From the New York Times to the Daily News to the New York Post and through most of the on-line journals, the reviewers all relished the visit of this production and the world-renowned company that performed it. Several had quibbles and cavils with bits of the show (some way off base, I think)—the long first part, comprising the first and second acts of Brecht’s script and running two hours before the intermission, was a common complaint. (There were seriously slow moments in the second-act portion of the first part, exacerbating what seemed like an interminable act. I thought part one was ending three times before it actually did.) A few reviews were less enthusiastic than most, but by and large they were all pretty close to raves. Only the Village Voice, as I mentioned, absolutely hated the piece. Michael Feingold, it seems, has no love for Robert Wilson’s theater, writing in his review that “Wilson has never really had any interest in the theater. He actively seems to disapprove of the theatrical impulse and even to resent its continued existence.” Of the show itself, Feingold states that Wilson turned “Brecht and Weill's middle-class wake-up call into dead entertainment for rich people.” He was, however, the only reviewer to come anywhere near this opinion, as far as I could find. From my own perspective, I couldn’t disagree with him more strongly. Even from my terrible vantage point, I found the experience exhilarating and more than satisfying. Wilson’s stage work has always fascinated me—I was less than delighted with Fables de la Fontaine and I found The Temptation of St. Anthony more pretty than engaging, but Black Rider remains one of the most astonishing pieces of theater I’ve seen and Wilson’s staging of Gertrude Stein’s Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights, which I saw almost 20 years ago, still startles me when I think of it.