Costumes, Music Dazzle in Threepenny Opera

Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera proudly and firmly asserts its bleak view of existence throughout its three acts, outright rejecting the notion that people are essentially good. Its principles are either at the margins of society, or act like they ought to be. “Even saintly folks may act like sinners unless they’ve had their customary dinners,” the characters sing in “How to Survive,” the final number of the second act. This line quite neatly encapsulates the play’s view of humanity.

The Threepenny Opera deals primarily with the impeccably dressed criminal Macheath—who was later immortalized in popular culture when Opera’s opening number “The Ballad of Mack the Knife” became a jazz standard soon after its release—and his legal troubles after he angers J.J Peachum, the outfitter and exploiter of the city’s beggars, when he marries Peachum’s frivolous daughter, Polly.

The plot isn’t really the point, of course. The heart of the play lies in its comic mood, its costumes, its dirty and rough-hewn set design, and its jazzy and sparse musical orchestration. Bertolt Brecht was very concerned with the artificiality of theater, and thus structured Opera like a burlesque cabaret, complete with a master-of-ceremonies figure narrating the entire affair directly to the audience. This play is meant to be an honest-to-goodness, dazzling show, and the Theatre for the Claremont Colleges’s production of The Threepenny Opera, playing this weekend under direction of Professor Betty Bernhard, admirably preserves this element of the musical. It is funny and boisterous, its costumes are memorable and imaginatively conceived (the lower end of Polly Peachum’s dress, for example, is made entirely of men’s ties), its set design—which consists entirely of found materials from Seaver Theatre’s storage—is appropriately slapdash, and its seven-piece orchestra ably performs the show’s playful and dissonant score.

The cast’s merits, of course, are not to be dismissed. Mark Irwin PZ ’14 plays Macheath with dangerous and mercurial charm, making his vulnerable moments seem both hilariously disingenuous and ingratiatingly, disarmingly convincing; Rachel Kuenzi SC ’13’s street singer and master of ceremonies possesses a twisted, clownish, and eminently compelling presence. The rest of the cast is similarly good, imbuing the scenes with the mischievous joy they deserved to have. One such standout scene featured the “Jealousy Duet” between Chelsea Thompson SC ’14 and Samantha Hill PO ’14, in which Thompson’s Polly Peachum and Hill’s Lucy Brown veered back and forth from disdainful rivalry to sweet and funny camaraderie, from aggressively singing abuses at each other to suddenly dancing and singing harmoniously, and then back again.

The Threepenny Opera, along with bringing eminent entertainment value, notably challenges the conventional model of narrative and theater due to Brecht’s aforementioned interest in theatrical self-consciousness. Thus, Opera is that rare breed, the musical that incites genuine post-show reflection, and is definitely worth the (very cheap) ticket price. The Threepenny Opera will play at Seaver Theatre this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday; please see the Life&Style calendar for times.

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