Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Threepenny Opera at the University of Minnesota

Threepenny Opera opened last weekend at the University of Minnesota Department of Theatre Arts and Dance. It's an ambitious and interesting production, but not one that totally worked for me.

I'm no student of world drama, but I understand that the musical by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, an adaptation of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, is meant to touch your brain, not your heart. Brecht's Verfremdungseffektsometimes translated as the alienation effect, intentionally creates a distance that prevents the audience from sympathizing with the characters. And the characters in Threepenny are definitely hard to like, from murderers and thieves to crooked cops and mercenary women.

This production uses the English translation of the dialogue by Robert Macdonald with English translation of the lyrics by Jeremy Sams, a version first produced at London's Donmar Warehouse in 1994. (This isn't the version that played in New York in 2006 starring Alan Cumming or the 1989 Broadway production that starred Sting.) Rather than the original setting of Victorian London, this script sets the story in the not-too-distant future. At the Donmar Warehouse, the setting was the time of Prince William's coronation as king. The University production refers to King Donald Trump and includes a mishmash of British and American references.

Photo: Dan Norman Photography.
The set includes arrays of television screens and projections showing news stories and advertisements that ranged from the 1950s through the 1960s. Mary C. Woll's costumes intentionally blur the time period references from the early 1900s to the unspecified future. There are some very intriguing individual costumes, but the total effect was discordant. Some of Kym Longhi's direction was interesting, but the stylized movements used by many of the characters didn't seem to have a purpose.

Is it possible for a Brecht production to be too alienating? I think it is. This version of the script is loaded with profanity that felt gratuitous. Before the show, actors in costume wander the aisles interacting with audience members, and carry the swearing into their banter. I don't think I'm prudish, but it felt overdone and a little "Look at us, we're edgy!"

KRL getting artsy with the program.
All of these factors combined to put me off to the point that it was nearly 45 minutes into the show that I realized that the actors were actually doing a great job! The singing was lovely and the characters quite charismatic, but it was a little hard to see it at first through the layers of artifice. By the end of the show, I was trying to separate the actors' performances from the direction they were given, and found that I admired them all the more for shining through everything else.

In the end, the multiple levels of alienation resulted in me sympathizing with the people on stage - not the characters, but the actors who rose above their surroundings. Even though I didn't care for many of the choices the production makes, I'm sure a student of Brecht and Weill would find much to interest them in this less-familiar version of the show.

Side note: I have to say that one thing I admire in a play is when I'm still thinking about it when it's over. I had a lot to think about after the show, and read quite a bit about the play and its various versions in preparing to write this. It made me really consider the material and what it was I liked and didn't like and why. For a college production, that seems like a success.