The Threepenny Opera hits the Macalester stage

By Nat French

It’s hard to tell what “The Threepenny Opera” is most critical of. Is it the economic injustice of today’s world, as the play’s finale suggests? Is it the futility of life, the contradictions and ambiguities inherent in humanity’s imperfections, a common theme throughout the show? Or is it a commentary on the state of the theater and the role of the artist, as many passages seem to imply? The uncertain message of the piece seems to be symbolic of its whole; playwright Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill have created an outlandish reality in which it is difficult to determine what, if anything, is as it seems. Macalester’s production of “The Threepenny Opera,” which opened last Friday and continues through this weekend, challenges its audience to look not at the world as it is but at ourselves as we are.The cast of “Threepenny” mixed well as an ensemble, and there were very few weak performances. Although the cast’s voices were somewhat uncultivated, it worked for the piece, lending a rawness to the show’s unorthodox power. Julia Brown gave an outstanding performance as Polly Peachum, her ironic inflection and cutting humor highly engrossing. Alex Galick, as her father J.J., was similarly well-suited to his role. His unusual vocal timbre and nuanced physicality combined to particular effect throughout the piece, and he made the third act his own. Although Jake Disch’s slight drawl and occasionally lazy posture somewhat weakened his rendition of the show’s villain protagonist, Macheath, he made a number of interesting choices and, significantly, allowed his character’s vulnerability full exposure. Russel Schneider, whose portrayal of the show’s narrator was oddly reminiscent of the emcee from “Cabaret,” best understood the absurd energy required by the piece and provided a focused energy that was missed in several other places.

“Threepenny” is visually stunning. Perhaps most impressive are the light and set designs, which, while complex and physically commanding, retain an air of suggestive minimalism. Director Gary Briggle’s blocking, although frequently too stationary during the smaller musical numbers, communicates an aura of foreboding. In particular, the vulgar fluidity of the masses of beggars and whores speaks to the seedy underworld represented, and when the stage is filled you can almost feel it pulsate. In employing a hybrid of thrust and arena staging, rarely allowing his actors to recede behind the proscenium, Briggle has effectively created the intimate atmosphere requisite for the piece.

“The Threepenny Opera” is decidedly not an ordinary musical. There are no sympathetic characters (the most likeable in the show attempts to poison her rival for a man’s love), no large song-and-dance numbers and the play has one of the stranger endings in our theatrical canon. It is an homage to the slums, to subterfuge and hypocrisy and to the darker recesses of humanity. Go see it; if you’re anything like me, you’ll be entertained, confused and ultimately edified.