Edmond Chibeau looks at performance and theatre from the avant-garde communication perspective

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Location: Mansfield, Connecticut, United States

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Brecht Ain't Aristotle

Brecht Ain’t Aristotle
By Edmond Chibeau

Three Penny Opera
Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill
Directed by Dave Dalton
Connecticut Repertory Theatre
At Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre
24 April – 3 May 2008

Hegemony is derived from the Greek word for power. But in a Brechtian context it means more than simply having power, it means having such complete and unquestioned power that it seems to be the only way things can be. Hegemony is when the oppressor has so thoroughly colonized the mind of the oppressed that they believe their powerlessness is in the very nature of things. When they believe change is impossible. Brecht took up the cudgel, or rather the pen, in an attempt to help us throw off the yoke of capitalist hegemony. His struggle was a brave one but he did not emerge victorious.

A key to any production of The Three Penny Opera is that the audience should question the situation that gave rise to the world where these things take place. The music and the lyrics both carry a biting irony that make the listener not smile indulgently, but think through the causes of the economic injustice that is imposed at the top and trickles down to the lowest stratum of society.

Brecht suggests a state of anomie among the beggars, but in fact he sets up an alternate morality that is a mirror image of the morality of the world of the police chief and his employers. The robbers embrace the morality of the robber barons.

In the first act when Mr. Peacham is told that Polly has eloped with Mack the Knife he runs to her bedroom and soon returns carrying a teddy bear and bemoaning the loss of his daughter. He and his wife hold the bear between them and sing. The bear is an index of Polly who cannot be there with them. The bear touches our hearts and makes palpable the sense of loss felt by the mother and father who have lost their daughter. The king of beggars is outraged that his daughter should fall in love with a thief and pimp.

The CRT Three Penny Opera captures the essence of the 1920s German expressionist aesthetic without imitating it or offering us a historical reconstruction. It offers a 21st Century dystopian expressionism that traces back through Rent, Chorus Line, Cats, and a host of other influences both domestic and international.

The elements of this production work together. Director Dave Dalton has synchronized the costume, sets, music, lights, and movement. He coaxes them into working together to create an artistic whole that is appropriate for the company he was working with and the performance space they are in. The production is not an amalgam of theatre tropes but a rich Gesamtkunstwerk. (Richard Wagner used the word Gesamtkunstwerk to suggest the integration of production elements for a significantly different kind of opera.) This show wisely uses the 1954 Mark Blitzstein translation which is a masterpiece and has not been equaled in the past half century.

In this production the rigging is exposed to the audience and at various times when sets or curtains are to be flown in they are hoisted by actors stepping into the wings and unfurling the counterweighted ropes that fly scenery in and out.

In one scene the moon is lowered on a rope and serves as a backdrop for a romantic love song. One cannot help but smile at the way the artificiality of the moon is used to estrange the audience from the sentimentality of the lyrics.

The device of projecting slogans onto cards held by the actors has recently found popularity and is used here to good effect. (The Metropolitan Opera’s production of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha comes to mind.)

In the wedding scene we first see Polly playing with a doll house and dolls. As the other characters approach her they are given dolls dressed in tuxedos. As they offer gifts and congratulations to the wedding couple they extend their dolls toward the person with whom they are speaking, just the way children handle dolls and speak for them when they play together. This bit of puppetry works like a charm.

Movement, voicing, sets, and costumes all have a similar hitch, stagger, or lurch that is a theme carried throughout the production. Director Dalton is able to move a theme across different elements of a production the way a composer or conductor is able to bring a motif or tempo out of: first the strings, then the brass, and then the woodwinds. In this case an abstract idea or feeling was initiated by the set, then the costumes, then the movement of an actor, and then transferred to several voices.

Although Polly intones with coquettish innocence that, “Love is rosier than a tanned bottom,” there is an interesting lack of sexuality in the prostitutes working for J. J. Peachum. They indicate salacious sexuality but they do not engender it. Many of these actresses have been seen in other CRT productions and have emanated an almost palpable sensuousness, but here each becomes a neutral place holder that indicates the corrupt sensuality of indentured sexworkers in the capitalist system. Was it really the intention of the director to estrange us from the warm sexiness that we have come to expect of prostitutes on stage and to force us to confront the economic realities of the wage slave? Or was it a cumulative side effect of the costumes, make-up, sets, lights and stylized gesture that served to reveal the socio-economic message of the Brecht/Weil text?

Christopher Hirsh as J.J. Peachchum is the fulcrum on which the whole play swings. Hirsh is a powerful presence who always works within the context of the scene he is in, and the ensemble he is with. Michael Daly is a sinuous and confident Macheath. He will mature into a compelling actor. Hillary Parker has a chance as Jenny to work in a different register than she is usually asked to portray. She carries it off with her usual aplomb. Rachel Leigh Rosado has a stage presence that demands our attention and then rewards us with a verbally precise and emotionally articulate performance.

The costumes by Dragana Vucetic were ecstatic, eclectic and effective. As a designer Vucetic has her own voice that is uniquely itself yet collaborates harmoniously with the larger goals of the production. There is a note in the playbill that tells us that the costume designs by Vucetic fulfill the requirements for her thesis production and that her advisor is Professor Laura Crow. Crow’s designs in other productions are quite different in tone from Vucetic’s. Crow must be an interesting advisor indeed to be able to elicit such competence and creativity from her advisee without leading her into the trap of imitation.

Emily Tritsch’s sound design is subtle and understated; it does not impose itself but becomes an invisible support for both the actors and the audience.

In The Three Penny Opera we are invited to dispassionately evaluate the situation of the poor living in a society that allows, and in fact requires, there to be a starving underclass. We are caught up in the passionate relationships of the characters. We are given a production philosophy that springs from German expressionism of the early Twentieth Century. But there is a production history that was strongly influenced by Soviet Realism.

Brecht purports to rationally expose the contradictions of capitalism, but in doing so he becomes enmeshed in the contradictions of Soviet Communism. Dalton does a fine job of cultivating those contradictions in a talented and well directed company.

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