you can’t beat ’em, Peachum: Melissa Sura in The Threepenny
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
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
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.
Had to Be There
Goes Without Saying
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.
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.
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.
friend suggests this might be a good time to write a country
I have taken, out of context, a dozen or so lines from the
monologue that got huge laughs and inserted them here.
Billy’s mine frau.”
Without the mime, however, there is no crime.
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.
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.
is now dustbusting the crumbs off of our pajamas.”
The difference is Bowers is a master mime, and silence is
more than golden.
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.
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.
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.