NCC modernizes ‘Threepenny Opera’
By Annie Alleman For Sun-Times Media May 3, 2012 9:58AM
♦ May 10-13
♦ Madden Theatre, 171 E. Chicago Ave., Naperville
♦ Tickets, $10-$8
♦ (630) 637-7469
Updated: May 3, 2012 9:58AM
Student actors at North Central College will bring Brecht to the stage for a production of “The Threepenny Opera.”
The early-20th century musical by German playwright Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill will be presented at 7:30 p.m. May 11 and 12 and at 2 p.m. May 13 in the College’s Madden Theatre.
Based on Elisabeth Hauptmann’s German translation of John Gay’s “The Beggar’s Opera,” the play famously asks the question “Who is the greater criminal: he who robs a bank or he who founds one?”
Kelly Howe, assistant professor of theatre at North Central, said the play is meant to leave the audience asking questions.
“It explores the criminal underworld of Victorian London. In particular, you have a couple of different factions depicted. You have the beggars, and you have the prostitutes — the brothel world — and then you also have the thieves,” she said.
One of the play’s main characters is Mr. Peachum, the king of the beggars, who gives the beggars their licenses to beg in the city of London. Macheath is the well-known, infamous and sexy king of the thieves, she said.
All heck breaks loose when Mr. Peachum’s daughter Holly falls for Macheath, which sets off a chain of events.
“Mr. Peachum is very upset his daughter has defected to the thief side, and he decides to make getting Macheath in jail his primary goal,” Howe said. “The rest of the show unfolds from there. Mr. Peachum is not very happy with his daughter starting to consort with the most notorious criminal in all of Victorian London.”
Howe wanted to do a play by Brecht, and her fortunately, her colleague Jeordano “Pete” Martinez, professor of music at the College, had a similar desire to direct the music for “Threepenny Opera.”
“My biggest goal was I wanted students to be able to encounter a particular style of theater, Brechtian performance, that they learn about (in class), but they haven’t had much opportunity to investigate what that kind of performance actually looks like in practice,” she said. “So it seemed like an ideal combination — to do something a colleague had been itching to do and to be able to have the student learn by doing.”
The students have risen to the occasion, she said.
“The show is kind of a jungle gym for your brain,” she said. “It’s pretty complex, and they’re doing very well with it.”
At the heart of the play — very famously — is a critique of capitalism, Howe said.
“To that end, I’ve chosen to set the production at an encampment of an Occupy movement,” she said. “So we’re staging a stylized version of a public park onstage. So the conceit is that we have we have this group of Occupiers, who have been engaging in lots of different acts of protest, but one of the ones they decide to do is to stage a performance of the ‘Threepenny Opera.’ Because really, we’ve been finding more and more, as we dig into our process, the play and the Occupy movement have so much in common in terms of the social critique that they’re offering.”
The idea to connect the two was sealed when she read a piece in The Nation from editor Richard Lingeman, who noticed the similarities as well.
“It reminded me that my instincts were right on in terms of seeing that the critique made by the play and the critique made by the movement were very similar in many ways,” she said.
The show’s score is heavily influenced by jazz, including the opening number and most popular song, “The Ballad of Mackie Messer.” The tune was later translated into English by Marc Blitzstein as “Mack the Knife” and became a jazz standard recorded by Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Bobby Darin.
“Neither Weille nor Brecht were interested in melodies that were super-pleasing to the ear. Not to say that the songs aren’t gorgeous in their own way,” she said. “The song melodies were meant to clash with the lyrics in a very artful way. For example, if you have a song that is really lush and beautiful, often the characters are talking about really nasty things … which creates a really interesting tension onstage. I think the students are into it, and that’s really exciting.”
The production contains adult language and situations and is intended for mature audiences only. As part of its critique of complex social dynamics, this play contains likely controversial words and phrases meant to foster critical discussion about power, ethics and identity.