After reading this review and hearing the initial misgivings of a few of my Introduction to Theatre students who had seen the show during its first weekend, I must admit that I was not looking forward to attending. Maybe it was the anticipation of drudgery that influenced my reaction, but I found myself in many moments (as several of my other students did)—despite the sometimes tedious length of the production—pleasantly surprised and, at turns, laughing out loud or otherwise fully engaged. Many images and performances stand out and linger with me still. It was, as one of my students commented, an exhausting evening, and as Chris points out, sometimes a tough night of theatre. But I’m not sure that that’s not what Brecht would have wanted. If we choose to care what he wanted.
Chris seems to take umbrage at Mark Davis’s elimination of the balladeer and the reassignment of the ballad of “Mack the Knife.” Putting copyright issues aside in terms of whose English translation of Brecht’s work was being used in this production, there is already controversy over how much of Brecht’s translation and adaptation—which is what it is—of John Gay’s 1728 ballad opera THE BEGGAR'S OPERA (even retaining a couple of the songs intact) was Brecht’s, and how much was the work of his longtime collaborator Elisabeth Hauptmann. On that note, Brecht was an avid adapter early on and, come to find out, often relied on Hauptmann to provide him with script. Not to take away from his brilliance as a poet and dramatist, but strategic rearrangement would seem to be in keeping with the spirit of Brecht’s work during this time.
Another major point that I think is being missed here is that the Brecht of THREEPENNY OPERA was not the Brecht of the Berliner Ensemble in the 1950s, not even the Brecht of the 1930s lehrstücke. This was Brecht in transition, not long after he had first read Marx, while he was in the throes of a cascade of theatre work in Berlin and before he had fully formulated his ideas of alienation or many of the concepts with which we have come to associate his work. Macheath maintains more than a little bit of Baal in him. Written in a fervor, THREEPENNY harkens back to Brecht’s admiration of Frank Wedekind while hinting at incipient glances toward a Marxist future.
With regard to the set and choreography in Mark Davis’s production, I did not see shabbiness or leanings toward Broadway and Bob Fosse; rather, I saw classic German expressionism in both. The stairway was vintage Leopold Jessner and the stylized group movement reminded me of photographs of 1920s European stagings that began to make their way across the pond in theatrical productions like John Howard Lawson’s PROCESSIONAL. Both set and movement were redolent of the film METROPOLIS, which many of the original Berlin audience of THREEPENNY may well have seen when it premiered there just one year before.
The skits and “character work” before the show were, for me, particularly effective because they gave living example to my students of early twentieth-century European avant-garde movements that sought to challenge the audience and get them out of their comfort zones.
I agree with a lot of what Chris has said here, especially in terms of the quality of student performances, which were, as he says, top notch. Could the scenes have used tightening? Definitely. Could some transitional bits have been reined in or cut? Absolutely. These are things that could have been fixed, given another few rehearsals. But for these college students to have had the experience to work on this production, and for it to be seen and talked about by the uninitiated (i.e., Intro students) was an invaluable thing for this community.
Now, if the University of Memphis could see clear to give theatre students academic credit for doing such productions—in tandem with the research and intellectual exploration necessary to understand with more complexity what it is that they are doing besides honing their craft (which they already do very well)—and to foster interdisciplinary conversations within the university through such productions, we’d be in even better stead.
By Chris Shaw
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