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The Threepenny Opera

Robert Wilson's production of the Brecht-Weill classic at BAM has moments of both beauty and dullness. logo
Stefan Kurt and company
in The Threepenny Opera
(© Lesley Leslie-Spinks)
Beautifully designed and rigorously performed, Robert Wilson's new production of the Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill classic The Threepenny Opera, that's now at BAM's Opera House, is a model of astonishing artistic control. Never does it seem that any of the show's elements -- from the ensemble members' precise movements to the shifts in Andreas Fuchs and Ulrich Eh's striking lighting design (developed from a conception by Wilson) -- are out of place.

Yet, sadly, the production's exactness, which unquestionably underscores the work's harsher qualities, ultimately strips it of its equally important sense of youthful irreverence and fun. Indeed, audiences certainly could not anticipate the sometimes arduous three hours of theatergoing that lie in store for them during the production's delightful opening moments.

A timpani blaring with simultaneous stridency and sprightliness during the neo-baroque overture induces smiles. Similarly, there's decided lightness to the proceedings when Stefan Kurt (the dynamically charismatic actor playing the show's anti-hero Macheath) delivers the musical's opening number, familiarly known as "Mack the Knife," and the company -- smeared in exaggerated white-face and clad in evening dress seemingly inspired by Edward Gorey had he worked in a New Wave vein (costumes by Jacques Reynard) -- parades across the stage backed by shimmering and overlapping circles of light.

But once this prelude has ended, and the action of the play moves into the shop that outfits London's beggars to maximize their efficacy, run by Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum (a dry Jürgen Holtz looking a bit like Grandpa from The Munsters in a skullcap). And here, the production takes a barren turn -- the first of many.

As the show, with an intricate plot revolving around a series of double-crosses that ensue after Macheath's marriage to Peachum's daughter Polly (Stefanie Stappenbeck), unfolds, Wilson's formalized gaiety seems to make the piece simply plod forward, particularly during extended silent vaudeville-like sequences in front of the show's black curtain.

Fortunately, there are moments when the production sparks to life, such as when Stappenbeck delivers "Pirate Jenny," speak-singing its first verses with youthful breathlessness before changing it into something more harshly guttural. After Macheath has learned that her father and mother (played with creepy vampiness by Traule Hoess) have set London's sheriff Tiger Brown (played with drollness by Axel Werner), after him, he retreats to a brothel run by ex-flame Jenny (Angela Winkler). There, Wilson reveals the women of the establishment in silhouette against a sickly yellow background, giving the production marvelously eerie sensuality.

Other embellishments work to only mixed success. Initially the clownish movements (accompanied by Looney Tunes-like sound effects) that Wilson has devised for his company amuse, but eventually, the gimmick proves wearisome. Similarly, while music director Hans-Jörn Brandenburg and Stefan Rager's sometimes irregular rhythms for Weill's songs can uncover new qualities in the score, they can also confound.

Nowhere is this more true than in a faux operatic duet for Polly and Lucy (played with marvelous intensity by Anna Graenzer), to whom Macheath is also married. Even with the English supertitles for the number, the vocal catfight verges on the nonsensical rather than comic.

Audiences will find laughs -- and topicality -- during the final moments as Macheath defends himself on the gallows, questioning whether anything he has done as a bourgeois criminal is worse than the legal machinations of the banking industry. Here the dual spirit of the classic show is perfectly balanced, and one can't help wish it were more present throughout this laudatory, but unsatisfying, production.

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