A theatre classic thrives at UNO

Criminals take the stage but they won’t get away with it.


“What I most want to get across is for everybody to have a good time,” says UNO Professor of Theatre Doug Paterson about his production of The Threepenny Opera, that enduring ground-breaker by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill.

Clearly, a good time can be had by all in this colorful version full of personality and polish, performed by UNO students. Expect some zingy, funny lines too. The cast conveys an unerring sense of style and sings with constant skill, framed in a superb set created by Robbie Jones. Patrick Kilcoyne gives a standout interpretation of Mr. Peachum and guest actor Dan Luethke’s Tiger Brown has meaningful presence, especially in a memorable rendition of “The Army Song.”. Moreover Emily Hill’s superb singing voice sounds just right for the role of Polly. At a preview, though, I felt that the readings of dialogue often missed the clearest emphases,and that the best meanings seemed lost. 

The well-known songs get their due thanks to a small but truly effective five-member orchestra, led by keyboardist Doran Schmidt, which well carries off Weill’s deliberately breezy, almost tinny period pieces. Weill’s catchy tunes have often been called jazz-like, a reflection of 1920s pop music. But, by today’s standards, the word “jazz” can only loosely can be applied. Paterson also cleverly stages some numbers as send-ups of operettas, no doubt in line with Brecht and Weill’s intentions.

Although it’s been more than 85 years since the debut of The Threepenny Opera by The Berliner Ensemble, here we have a remarkably fresh and adept ensemble, meshing as if it has had years to together. Paterson’s got it all together.

This 1928 legend keeps on coming back,no doubt due to its undiminished fame. This is a chance to experience it afresh or perhaps for the first time. But people less familiar with the tale need to be alerted to not expect the horrors described in what became the pop song hit “Mack the Knife,” which is from this score. The words refer to Mack’s past, not what awaits onstage. Don’t expect bloody violence.

Notorious criminal Mack/aka Macheath seeks respectability by moving up the social scale, marrying Polly Peachum, the seemingly innocent daughter of a highly successful, prosperous citizen who runs a street beggar operation all over town. Mr. Peachum controls major territory, has impressive income and nothing he does is really outside the law. Mack’s past career of murder and other crimes could bring him down but he’s stayed out of prison due to a close tie with police commissioner Tiger Brown, whose daughter, Lucy, Mack also married. There are other women in his life, including the  prostitute Jenny.Things go awry and Mack may be hanged.

Brecht derived his script and lyrics from German Elisabeth Hauptmann’s translation of Englishman John Gay’s 18th-century ballad opera, The Beggar’s Opera.  You might not need to know that, but you should be aware that Paterson uses a version by American composer/lyricist/librettist Marc Blitzstein. Such information isn’t in the program book. Nor are there even direct credits for Brecht and Weill. These unfortunate oversights seem out of place in such an educational institution.

On the other hand, Paterson has inserted multiple informative and interesting paragraphs about the background for this classic as well as observations about interior meanings. Equivilent opinions  have proliferated during the lifetime of this “play with music,” as it was originally defined. Paterson writes that this is “about a criminal state with widespread poverty” where people do what they must “in order to survive.”

When talking with me, he commented that Brecht saw this as a fable and “…that he was writing for the working people to get away from the chaos and clamor of daily life, giving them something they could identify with, something dynamic and special. It’s tongue in cheek as well as cynical.” But he didn’t want audiences to be distracted by asking too many questions.

Usually critics and commentators see this as a vehicle for Brecht’s views on politics, history and, most especially, socialism. “Sure there’s stuff about private property and privilege,” notes Paterson. “We’re looking at the characters as types, but more sociological than psychological, in roles forced by their society. Certainly Brecht had messages which are sometimes directly stated, but there are others more in images and performances which speak to audiences on a different level.”  

As a theatre-goer, you need not look for such elements or expect that you must do so in order to get the essence. You may make your own discoveries, though  

Paterson’ s program says that this takes place around 1900-1910 in “A town nearby.” In fact, eventually there are even added verbal references to Omaha and Nebraska. Paterson has been fascinated by a period in Omaha history, when, at the end of U.S. frontier days, this city was run by a bunch of crooks, “probably more criminally and tightly than any city in the nation.” From 1905 to 1932 (i.e, during the time that The Threepenny Opera emerged) Tom Dennison was the boss.   “He had everything and everyone under his control. Judiciary. Police.  City government. He even had his own mayor.”  http://www.omaha.com/news/hansen-omaha-s-al-capone-and-the-trial-that-changed/article_6d00361f-4d3a-58bf-9e9d-bfbac13f13c8.html 

You also might be interested to know that Paterson sees his involvement with theatre as choosing to deal with politics and that this script readily relates to today’s “economic disparities.” “With Bernie Sanders bringing up ideas about socialism and capitalism, I’m glad I’ve lived long enough to see this happen.”

“Politics is power.  Human beings are always engaged in relationships of power. Our electoral system has a way of sort of trivializing, of over-simplifying and disguising such politics. Some of that lies within this piece. But let’s not go too much into that; it wouldn’t be much fun anymore.”  

Speaking of politics, like Brecht, Marc Blitzstein was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. In 1958 Blitzstein testified that he had been a member of the Communist Party about ten years before. That revelation was four years after the opening of  the off-Broadway debut of his hit version of The Threepenny Opera which was still running. Brecht, you recall, had been a dedicated Party member. http://www.marcblitzstein.com/

Paterson also has been working for 25 years with a group called Theatre of the Oppressed, a concept begun by Brazil’s Augusto Boal seeking to make audiences active participants in theatrical experience, seeing traditional theatre as oppressive. Boal believed that spectators need to have chances to express themselves, and to collaborate with performers, thus becoming socially more “liberated.” In fact, Paterson spent this past September in a Kurdish region of Iran doing Theatre of the Oppressed workshops with students and performance professionals to create street theatre.  http://theforumproject.org/whatisto/  

He reports that all went well. No problems. All goes well too at UNO. You’ll enjoy yourself. No problem.

The ThreePenny Opera runs through Dec. 5 at UNO Theatre, Weber Fine Arts Building, UNO, 6001 Dodge Street. 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $6-16. UNO students: free. www.unomaha.edu/unotheatre  


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