The people responsible for the Jean Cocteau Repertory production of John Gay's reworked Beggar's Opera seem to have taken that announcement to heart: They've mounted an impoverished version of the in-your-face musical with its take-no-prisoners view of human nature. Watching and listening to this lackluster treatment and its accumulating deficiencies can bring to mind the old expression, "Beggars can't be choosers." But what about those who don't need to beg and consequently can afford to be a little choosier? They might opt to depart during either of the two intermissions. (Many of those attending the performance that I saw seized this opportunity.)
Their desertion seemed a comment on the inability of the Cocteau company, only two of whom have an Actors' Equity asterisk next to their name in the cast list. These players fail to rise to the challenge of persuasively presenting the Brecht-Weill allegorical take on Weimar Republic corruption. In the play's handful of angry, corrosive scenes, the dapper, womanizing thief Macheath is pursued by Mr. and Mrs. Jonathan Peachum, who run a syndicate for beggars. The belligerent Peachums are furious that nervy Macheath has dared to carry off their daughter Polly, who's a virgin but doesn't act like one. Suborning at least one of the women from Mack the Knife's past, the rampaging elder Peachums see their prey hauled to the gallows but then seem to forgive and forget when a last minute development affects what has promised to be a gloomy denouement.
Under David Fuller's direction, the actors are largely at a loss as to how to handle either the libertine-loving libretto or the Brecht-Weill songs that punctuate it like a series of exploding grenades. Brecht, of course, famously objected to the Stanislavski teachings that he felt tempted players to coddle the characters they embody. He called for detachment in performance, for a lack of polish, for an element of alienation that would reflect the mood prevalent in post-World War I Germany. But the style of the Cocteau Rep's Threepenny is not Brechtian. That the cast members are mostly very young isn't necessarily the problem in a city where talented young actors are abundant; that they come across as tyros pushed beyond their abilities is cause for concern. Blonde and pretty Amy Lee Williams as Polly, for instance, has a certain grit in her voice. She displays it in "Pirate Jenny," which has been restored to her -- as Brecht and Weill originally planned -- after being associated with Jenny Diver since Carmen Capalbo's acclaimed 1954 production, in which Lotte Lenya appeared so definitively as Jenny. But Williams is unable to carry over her vocal skill to the presentation of a complex young woman; in the book scenes, she's merely bland. Natalie Ballesteros as Polly's rival, Lucy Brown, has a soprano of some impact but fails to convey the nuances of a coruscating role.
Ballesteros also has diction problems, and she isn't alone; just about the entire cast has trouble in this area. The result is that song after song is hard to understand, no matter how famous it may be within the Brecht-Weill canon. "What keeps a man alive?" one lyric inquires. "He lives on others" is the cynical answer. Well, the Cocteau crew seems to stay alive by swallowing Blitzstein's words as if they were so many chocolate-covered raisins. Thereby lost are such verbal slams at humanity as the bluntly titled "Wedding Song," "Army Song," "Polly's Song," "Useless Song," and "Ballad of the Easy Life."
Amid the inadequacies, a couple of actors rise to competence. Chad A. Suitts, with his knife-like profile, suggests a good deal of Macheath's raffishness; Angus Hepburn is gruff and determined as Mr. Peachum; Elise Stone, buxom in low-cut prostie rags, manages to look as if she's running on a bitterness that years of disinterested men have stirred in her; and Abe Goldfarb as police commissioner/Macheath pal Tiger Brown appears to have comic-acting chops.
The best notion that director Fuller and set designer Roman Tatarowicz have realized here is the opening image of the production: A red velvet curtain covers the doorway in the wall of what's meant to suggest a genteel home. Just as the play begins, that curtain is ripped down and the two halves of the wall are pushed aside to reveal the rudely gotten-up cast glaring at the audience from upstage platforms. It's a neat metaphor for tearing away civilized facades to expose the rot underneath.
As for the other members of the creative team: Judith Jarosz is credited with the uninspired choreography; Giles Hogya on lighting and Joanne Haas on costumes have done what they could with, presumably, their beggar's allowance; musical director Charles Berigan renders the score on solo piano and, from the muddy sound of things, he plays the instrument while wearing mittens.
Harris Berlinsky (who shows up here briefly as the clergyman presiding over the hasty Macheath-Polly Peachum nuptials) and Elise Stone are the mainstays of the Jean Cocteau Repertory company, founded by Eve Adamson in 1971 and now boasting 30 years at the Bouwerie Lane Theatre. That's a notable milestone but, on the evidence of this outing and last season's Uncle Vanya, the J.C. Rep is beginning to look like a vanity operation on the part of Berlinsky and Stone. Undoubtedly, the company has to make do on a limited budget, but the history of theater is chockablock with people overcoming scant resources through imagination and vision. Unfortunately, those qualities are increasingly less visible on these premises. No way around it, the Cocteau Rep's Threepenny Opera is hardly worth tuppence.