Genocidal Days

The Brecht police will probably snipe at the San Diego Rep’s Threepenny Opera: how it fails to achieve this or that aspect of his “Epic Theater.” And the production is open to potshots. But the Sam Woodhouse–directed show not only re-creates Brecht’s notion of a primitive opera that turns the grandiose into a “dirty joke,” it’s one of the Rep’s finest efforts in quite some time.

“Art isn’t nice,” said Brecht, who detested the bourgeois theater of sumptuous tricks and built-in codes that allowed audiences to identify safely with the material. Brecht wanted to make this familiar theater feel strange, and the strange become familiar (he called this the “V-effect”). He had the trick-makers — lighting instruments, etc. — stand in plain view. Here’s how they dupe you, Brecht’s plays shout.

Brecht not only wanted to expose illusions, he wanted, most of all, for the “top stratum of the bourgeoisie to laugh at its own absurdity” because, he believed, “to laugh is to criticize.” And their laughter would raise the question, “Criminals are bourgeois; are the bourgeois criminals?”

Brecht died in 1956. By then his innovations had become so familiar he told a director to stretch things further: have the makeup even more unpleasant, and romanticize the love scenes to the hilt, but perch them on quicksand. The Rep follows these guidelines. No sane clown would dare apply the cast’s gray-and-brown–streaked makeup (from Revlon’s “ghoul collection”?), and the romance still has a strange-making feel, especially when you realize that Mack “the Knife” Macheath was based, in part, on Jack the Ripper.

Mack prances about amid rumors of him violating child brides, murdering Jenny Towler (among others), causing a fire in Soho that killed seven children, and missing his genocidal days in India, where he and police chief Tiger Brown murdered “new races” and turned them into “beefsteak tatare.” Of “The Ballad of Mack the Knife,” which sums him up, scholar John Fuegi wrote, “This was the song Berlin sang as it lurched toward the abyss.”

As Mack, slick-haired, mustachio’d Jeffrey Meek wears a red-pinstriped suit and yellow gloves (designer: Jennifer Brawn Giddings) and has the vocal chops-plus. It may speak well of him as a moral being, but on opening night, Meek was often reluctant to dehumanize the role fully. Since the Rep’s production has no fourth wall and is staged in the intimate Lyceum Space, Meek should be ever-ready to brandish his cane like a sword, leap into the audience, and run riot.

Roland Barthes said, “Wickedness is always precise.” Jonathan and Celia Peacham are certainly wicked, though in imprecise, creepy ways. A London gang lord, Peacham hires fake beggars to generate capital but finds that compassion’s a finite commodity. Since hearts have hardened, Jonathan now needs pros — better still, artists — to suffer convincingly and extract the cash from waning altruists. Peacham’s bourgeois instincts rankle when he hears that daughter Polly has fallen for lowlife Macheath.

A Tony Soprano–sized Lyle Kanouse and Leigh Scarritt play the Peachams. Kanouse booms vocally (and could a bit more with the character). Scarritt’s Celia takes stage throughout as if itching for a fight. She makes a bold choice, then another, even more grotesque, and none display the slightest need for approval. In Scarritt’s most striking moments, Celia genuinely loathes the audience; she’ll exploit us any way she can.

Threepenny’s allegedly a beggar’s opera. But Kurt Weill’s music, his first major score, blurs all distinctions between the basement and the stars. Brecht wanted the music bled of emotion. And the cast tries to distance itself from abundant feeling, but none can hide the — once-in-a-lifetime, most likely — thrill of singing such great music. Though this is a Brechtian no-no, the singers belt song after song with an infectious, performative verve.

Music director Mark Danisovszky’s seven-piece band and Javier Velasco’s inventive choreography de-Broadway the numbers. They critique the strategies and tricks of commercial theater the way Threepenny critiques capitalism’s.

It turns out that Elisabeth Hauptmann wrote at least 80 percent of Threepenny (like Shakespeare, Brecht was ever a borrower and a lender). The copyright fiasco’s a boon for the script, however, since the women receive equal time on stage (if not in the economic system). As Lucy Brown and Polly Peacham — two of Mack’s wives, though he says he prefers Jenny Diver — Amy Ashworth Biedel and Amanda Kramer excel. Their matched soprano voices, especially in the “Jealousy Duet,” are a marvel.

Brecht was a borrower: he took his “strange-making” V-effect, for example, from the Russian Victor Shklovsky’s concept of “de-familiarization” (oustranenie). But no matter where he found them, every current theatrical production will use one, if not more, of Brecht’s innovations. At the curtain call, Sam Woodhouse adds an apt V-effect tag, which may be original. His four stagehands, who have labored in plain sight all evening, take a well-deserved bow.

The Threepenny Opera, by Bertolt Brecht
San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown
Directed by Sam Woodhouse; cast: Lyle Kanouse, Leigh Scarritt, Shawn Goodman Jones, Ruff Yeager, Jeffrey Meek, Amanda Kramer, Bryan Barbarin, Karson St. John, Paul James Kruse, Gale McNeeley, Lisa Payton Jartu, Amy Ashworth Biedel; scenic design, Giulio Cesare Perrone; costumes, Jennifer Brawn Giddings; lighting, Tervor Norton; sound, Tom Jones; choreographer, Javier Velasco; musical director, Mark Danisovszky
Playing through March 29; Wednesday and Sunday at 7:00 p.m., Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-544-1000.

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