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Let No One Deceive You 

Wednesday, Oct 6 1999
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"More perhaps than any other theater in America," wrote the San Francisco Chronicle in 1899, "the Tivoli made opera a democratic entertainment." That quote comes from The Threepenny Opera's program notes, and it's pertinent because the set for this newly translated production was modeled on the Tivoli Opera House, which collapsed in the earthquake of 1906. A wall broken by archways encloses the space where the Peachums and Macheath squabble over Polly; neon signs advertising naked girls and Chinese food flash on the brick, and a live orchestra plays from windows in the upper level. It looks cool -- decadent, run-down, elegant. And its evocation of Old San Francisco brings Brecht's satire vividly home to well-heeled audiences at the Geary.

The whole show is innovative, in fact, and well-performed. But does it do the one thing Brecht would have wanted -- the one thing that redeems this nasty bourgeois habit of putting on plays, of singing and bowing for applause while people starve? Does it make Threepenny a democratic entertainment? That's our question for the week.

Bebe Neuwirth, as Jenny, strolls out in the first scene wearing an old-fashioned red teddy and fishnet stockings. Jenny has taken over the Street Singer's role in this production: She narrates, and does "Mack the Knife" in a hard, haunted cabaret voice; Neuwirth's black hair and white skin contrast in the spotlight with a starkness that matches her deadpan manner.

"You are about to see an opera for beggars," she tells the audience. "Because this opera is so magnificent only a beggar could have thought it up, and because it still had to be so cheap even beggars could afford it, we call it The Threepenny Opera."

Cheap? Of course not. Tickets for the show hover between 20 and 60 bucks. The ACT does have pay-what-you-can nights, but the cheapest seats at the Geary are also near the roof, and it's reportedly hard to hear the singers' voices over the band, because the hip innovation of putting the musicians upstairs in this show also puts them closer, of course, to the balconies.

Anyway.

The Peachums' shop for beggars looks like a modern secondhand store, populated with kids in '90s street clothes -- backward baseball caps, rolled knit hats, Rasta tams -- and the dialogue works in references to San Francisco streets. So we're not in SoHo anymore; we really could be in the burned-out remains of the Tivoli, with Mr. and Mrs. Peachum running a racket to dress people up as wounded and needy beggars. (For that matter, we could also be in Diesel Jeans.) The Peachums pretend to serve the homeless but actually skim a percentage of the alms. Their daughter, Polly, falls for a straightforward criminal named Macheath, who resents the elder Peachums' hypocrisy; when Mack and Polly marry, the Peachums hatch a plot to bring Mack to the gallows, with help from his ex-girlfriend, Lucy, and his favorite whore, Jenny. The show has always been a funny blend of 18th-century England, 1920s gangsterism, and German cabaret; and it's the songs -- especially Kurt Weill's score -- that bring it to life, not the cardboard characters or plot.

Steven Anthony Jones puts grit and sweat into his songs as Mr. Peachum; his voice is limited but he plays the character with infectious gusto. Nancy Dussault does a drunken Mrs. Peachum ably enough, and comes alive when she sings, especially in her big number, the "Ballad of the Prisoner of Sex," which perceptive readers will notice is no longer called the "Ballad of Sexual Dependency." Mrs. Peachum's always been a dirty old woman, but Michael Feingold's translation makes her even dirtier.

Feingold wrote this translation in 1989 for an aborted production of Threepenny set to star Sting; his work differs from the more traditional English version in a few drastic ways. First, there's a new song by Lucy: She gets to sing a jazzed-up aria that Brecht and Weill cut from the Berlin premiere. Second, the "Pirate Jenny" song, usually sung by Jenny herself because of Lotte Lenya's historic performance at the New York premiere, is given back to Polly. Anika Noni Rose plays a pure-voiced, innocent Polly, with an occasional bluesy quaver; Lisa Vroman plays Lucy as a pink-robed, over-the-top, operatic diva who likes to show off her voice.

Feingold's translation, along with Carey Perloff's staging, also focuses the show, making it as easy to follow as a comic strip. His idea was to bring English-speaking audiences back to the original German version, but what Feingold achieves in clarity, good revisionism, and up-to-date foul language, he pays for by weakening perfectly good songs.

The so-called Tivoli Orchestra, directed by Peter Maleitzke, plays Weill's score with a nimble, edgy twang; it even includes a banjo, which is a nice American touch. The music has always been the best reason to see Threepenny. Only Charles Lanyer, as Tiger Brown, is a disappointing singer. Philip Casnoff's Macheath is disappointing too, but that's because he seems miscast. With his healthy goateed face, shy smile, and sonorous, fluid voice, Casnoff plays the gang boss as a San Francisco swing-scenester when he should be dark and slippery. A lot of the ensemble beggars look like what they are -- well-fed kids in secondhand clothes -- while most of Macheath's gang is likewise inappropriately rosy-cheeked.

This isn't artistic criticism, but the glaring middle-classness of the cast does suggest the deep contradiction in The Threepenny Opera that has existed from the start. Of course it's not democratic entertainment. (Only Tivoli-style ticket prices would make it that.) Like most art claiming to be of or for the People -- mural painting, agitprop theater, rock -- Brecht's plays belong to a solid bourgeois tradition, living off the wallets of the mostly middle-class. No art will ever save the hungry, or destroy the class system, because art can't do those things. To assuage your guilt by pretending otherwise -- and wrapping yourself in the mantle of a didactic, Volk-dedicated aesthetic, like Brecht -- is pure Peachumism.

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