Without a specific target, The Threepenny Opera is raggedy and uncertain

Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera, based on John Gay's satiric eighteenth-century piece, The Beggar's Opera, burst onto the Berlin scene in 1928. Revolutionary for its time both in content and form, it rocked the art world, and it has since been staged and re-staged, as well as filmed. Brecht created a universe of whores, thieves and beggars that represented the pillars of German society as he saw it: wealthy merchants, politicians, the police, the army. A version of that universe is now on display at Miners Alley.

Jeremiah and Celia Peachum run a begging operation, showing destitute people how to arouse sympathy in the comfortably well-fed, sending them out to beg and then taking their cut. The joke is that they operate just like conventional businesspeople for whom the poor are a commodity and a source of profit. Which is not to say that Brecht presents these beggars as pitiable; on the contrary, he shows that poverty and deprivation twist the soul as much as they do the body. The murderous Macheath is another kind of capitalist, king of a murky underworld of robbery, backstreet deals, prostitution and violent death. The police, represented by Macheath's old army buddy Tiger Brown, are in cahoots with Macheath. Well, at least as long as it isn't too inconvenient.

When the Peachums' daughter Polly runs off and marries Macheath, her parents are outraged, and they arrange for one of his many women to betray him to the police in the hope of seeing him hanged. The dialogue is cynical, mocking all conventional ideas about love, compassion, decency and justice, and the play's structure is mocking, too, challenging the theater of Brecht's time by deliberately reminding the audience that what they're watching is an artifact and not a representation of reality, and that any idea of empathy with the characters is absurd. But the songs account in large part for this show's popularity. They're amazing: jazz-inflected, alternately melodic and raucous, sometimes accompanied by a thumping hurdy-gurdy beat. (Bob Dylan once commented that he'd been instantly aroused by "the raw intensity of the songs.") "Pirate Jenny," Polly's bloodthirsty fantasy about killing everyone in town, is a classic, as is the satirical tango between Mac and Jenny called "Pimp's Ballad." And half the noteworthy vocal artists of the past century have at one point or another come up with a version of "The Ballad of Mac the Knife."

Threepenny has been mounted many different ways. Some versions are icily elegant, others show beggars writhing on the ground in rags. The trouble with the Miners Alley production is that director El Armstrong doesn't seem to have decided on any specific interpretation, and a list of quotations on the program from thinkers ranging from Nietzche to Winston Churchill to George W. Bush contributes nothing coherent. There's a raggedy quality to the show, and it could clearly have used a couple more weeks of rehearsal in addition to a firmer directorial hand. The music doesn't get its meticulous due. The little choreography that exists is uncertain. The actors flounder. As Polly, Erica Lyn Cain starts out using an artificial little speaking voice, becoming a bit more naturalistic as the play progresses. In his loose and informal outfit, Richard Cowden, playing Macheath — the man who finds killing as easy as picking his teeth — could comfortably amble onto the set of Oklahoma!. We know the singing isn't meant to communicate emotion or sound pretty and appealing, and that might be part of the problem: actors with trained and pleasing voices actually trying to sound unpleasant. Only one of them has the chops for it. When Megan Van De Hey walks onto the stage as Low-Dive Jenny, she pierces all the vagueness and imprecision. Her presence is strong, her singing every bit as harsh as Brecht and Weill would have wanted. And she also adds an element of fire. This Jenny has feelings about the abortion Macheath forced on her, and feelings about Macheath himself. She betrays him out of contempt and rage and because she's callous and because she really likes money.

It really doesn't violate the spirit of Brechtian theater to allow one of his characters to be this interesting — or to provide a moment of passion. When Macheath faces execution with a "Call From the Grave," Cowden finally cuts loose with a truly terrific voice, and the emotion he communicates is primal, adding to the irony of Brecht's satirically ridiculous happy ending.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman