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If you can’t beat ’em, Peachum: Melissa Sura in The Threepenny Opera.

Missing Your Marx
By James Yeara

The Threepenny Opera
Music by Kurt Weill, book and lyrics by Bertolt Brecht, english adaptation by Marc Blitzstein, directed by Peter Hunt, musical direction by James Sampliner

Williamstown Theatre Festival, through July 6

Seeing The Threepenny Opera at Williamstown Theatre Festival is a surreal experience.

The set by John Conklin—a three-story metal scaffolding—dwarfs the performers, metal circles dotting the scaffolding like sewer covers. A two-story Andy Warhol-ish painting of a frumpy, defaced Queen Victoria (her visage has been torn into thirds, a swastika drawn on her earring, her right eye torn out) dominates the set before the musical begins.

This purposeful collection of anachronisms—The Threepenny Opera is set at Victoria’s coronation, the painting is her at the end of her reign, the swastika is a sinister symbol of the 20th century—perfectly conveys the timelessness of Brecht’s and Weill’s masterpiece. Huge placard slogans extolling the benefits, mostly monetary, of the Good Book (“Contains four or five real money makers” and “God’s visible blessings rest upon us”) are flown during the Peachum scenes. Giant disembodied eyes or hands, like images from a Monty Python cartoon, are flown in to frame solos. The melding of eras and perspectives and of images and slogans is dizzying.

Laurie Churba’s multiple-shades-of-black costuming and Rui Rita’s shadows-on-grime lighting complement the industrial chill of the set. The Threepenny Opera is like a rich man’s nightmare of the lower classes: the criminals, con men, beggars, prostitutes and corrupt policemen. The difference between lawful and unlawful seems to be in the look and the lights. The faux-Nazi uniforms of the police compared to the three-piece suits of Macheath and his men and the worn sexiness of the Victoria’s Secret lingerie of Macheath’s women makes for further dizziness.

And the songs: From the Street Singer’s (Laurent Giroux, all snappish leers and sneers) opening song “Mack the Knife”—delivered directly to the audience in a fascinatingly cold-blooded fashion—to the wicked, brutal bite of “Army Song”—The Threepenny Opera is a hurdy-gurdy whirl of sounds. The full cast assembles on the scaffolding to sing the Act II closer, “How to Survive,” swelling the scene Chicago-style, creating a thrilling excess of song. (Having so many healthy folks trilling, “Even saintly folk may act like sinners/If they haven’t had their customary dinners,” is an irony that twists itself inside out.)

Brecht’s “alienation effect,” the repeated references by the characters to the artifice of the play they are in, the knowing wink of the performers’ manipulation of the audience, furthers the surreal experience of this production. With Broadway star Betty Buckley as Macheath’s tawdry former love, Jenny, and Law & Order star Jesse L. Martin as Macheath to applaud, WTF’s The Threepenny Opera was a sold-out crowdpleaser.

And that’s the most dizzying aspect of this surreal experience. The Threepenny Opera is a 1928 social satire based on John Gay’s 1728 social satire about murderers, thieves, prostitutes, and hypocrites, The Beggar’s Opera. The play and its ur-text mock the very class that produce the musical and watch it today. When the Street Singer says of The Threepenny Opera, “[We want to do it] so cheap even a beggar could afford it,” the irony is staggering: Here are movie, TV and Broadway stars playing impoverished citizens for the highest theatrical ticket prices in the Berkshires. A play whose politics are so left they’d make Fox News spume (Macheath might as well have taken his lyrics “What’s a jimmy in the hand compare to stocks and bonds in hands?/What’s the robbing of a bank to the founding of a bank?” from the latest corporate scandal) is whispered to be the next WTF-to-Broadway transfer. That sort of corporate sellout would seem likely to make the Marxist Brecht whirl in his grave.

In a time of embedded flag-waving, it may have been an act of bravery simply to produce The Threepenny Opera, but it would have been even braver still to use a more contemporary imperialist ruler than Queen Victoria at the center of the stage. To tip the balance less in favor of celebrity, and to make the satire bite the hand that feeds it, would have the served the text well. The heart of The Threepenny Opera is its head; for an audience whose eyes are focused on the stars, the honesty of the satire may be lost.

You Had to Be There

It Goes Without Saying
Written and performed by Bill Bowers, directed by Martha Banta

Adirondack Theatre Festival, Tannery Pond Community Center, July 9-11

Bill Bowers has led a life of mime.

“Here I am, 40 years old, and I’m hiding from mimes.”

A Broadway actor in The Lion King and The Scarlet Pimpernel, he also played Slim Goodbody for seven years, studied with Marcel Marceau, and played an assortment of costumed mascots for various corporations and county fairs, from his native Montana to the malls of Florida.

“ZaZu in The Lion King isn’t that far from Mr. Pink Puss.”

He tells the audience this and more in his 90-minute monologue with mime, It Goes Without Saying, the second world premiere at Adirondack Theatre Festival this summer.

“A friend suggests this might be a good time to write a country song.”

I have taken, out of context, a dozen or so lines from the monologue that got huge laughs and inserted them here.

“Nein, Billy’s mine frau.”

Without the mime, however, there is no crime.

“Michael has a very bad case of a very long word.”

Bowers tells the audience that “all the stories are true,” and he even puts it in writing—on the flipchart on the easel upstage right. That, a white stool, a bottle of water, his black pants, open blue-print short-sleeve shirt over his black T-shirt, (he looked like a less-hairy Robin Williams), are all the supporting stagecraft Bowers needs.

“Billy, you make terrible coffee: I threw it away.”

None of these lines is on the flipchart, but the audience shakes with laughs, occasionally gasps, and joins with Bowers. I haven’t seen an audience empathize with stories in as intimate a fashion since Lisa Kron’s 2.5 Minute Ride.

“Inga is now dustbusting the crumbs off of our pajamas.”

The difference is Bowers is a master mime, and silence is more than golden.

“It looks like a witch’s nose.”

He creates in exacting detail the people he’s met (“Tonka trucks to mobilize the Barbies!”), been moved by or has moved in his life (“Oh my god, Hugh Grant just said ‘cock’ to me”)—from grandparents to Donald Trump (“No, I have a girlfriend”), from tiptoeing 6-year-olds, to his lover on his deathbed.

“I thought you were going to sell me an EKG home-testing kit.”

The result is a funny 90 minutes that brought the audience to its feet at the end in that rarity of theatrical events: a standing ovation based on the excellence of the performance just given, not in celebration of the celebrity of the performer.

“Then there was drama club, which I like to think of as a sort of gay Head Start.”

Bowers begins and ends his 90 minutes in silence. It goes without saying that without Bowers the mime, these are only lines on the page. A mime is a terrible thing to waste; the mime gives the lines life, grace, humor, and that sly, full-moon grin. The context is all.

—James Yeara


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