“Life’s a bitch and then you die.”
Signature Theatre in Shirlington is staging an updated version of “The Threepenny Opera” through June 1. While it was written in 1920s Germany (and based on John Gay’s 1728 “The Beggar’s Opera”), its themes are timeless: the brutality of humanity and the scathing critique of a capitalist society.
With a dark translation by Robert David MacDonald and Jeremy Sams, the play is set in a miserable future surrounding the coronation of King William V — currently Prince William — in the underworld of London. Director and choreographer Matthew Gardiner and Scenic Designer Misha Kachman make use of graffiti by Banksy, a British artist/political activist as well as a neon LED stock market screen.
Gardiner said Signature had discussed doing “The Threepenny Opera” for many years, adding that it feels truly relevant today — especially with the Pew Research Center’s report that income inequality is at its highest level since 1928 — coincidentally, the same year that the play premiered.
“I wanted to tell the story that [Kurt] Weill and [Bertolt] Brecht intended to tell. It is a scathing satire and I feel that in many translations/adaptations of Brecht’s and Weill’s musical, that is lost,” said Gardiner. “[English translators] Robert David McDonald and Jeremy Sam’s adaptation is everything I wanted for a contemporary audience. I hope that the audience can see the world we live in now. This play is brutal in its view of the world. I hope we achieved painting it in that way.”
As far as challenges, Gardiner said Brecht is stylistically a very challenging playwright. “How do you respect his techniques and at the same time make them relevant for a contemporary audience. How do you continue to shock, surprise and rally an audience into a desire to make a change,” he said. “It was a difficult but thrilling challenge.”
Actress Erin Driscoll plays the role of Polly Peachum, a spoiled young woman who marries her parents’ arch-nemesis in an act of rebellion. “She plays dumb and coy but underneath is a cunning woman who is just as ruthless as Mack the Knife,” said Driscoll.
In acting in this Brecht piece, she said, “The point of the piece is to not be acknowledged for your acting and singing chops, but to get the message of the piece across. The goal is to keep the audience from connecting in a personal way with your character and as an actor, that is something you normally want from your audience.”
She added, “The piece comments on wealth disparity, politics, greed, etc., which are issues that we deal with today. If the audience walks away thinking about these issues in a critical way, then we have done our job.”
Natascia Diaz plays the role of Jenny, the ex-flame of MacHeath. “They lived together, and, out of economic desperation, budding antisocial behavior, he basically whored her out for money to support them,” she said.
For Jenny, Mack the Knife’s demise is inevitable. Diaz said that he moved on to raping, killing and womanizing other women, where in his world he is treated like a rockstar. She said, “[Jenny] was offered money to turn him in. There is nowhere else for their ‘love’ to go. His ego and criminality takes over and as a result, love gets left behind,” Diaz said. “There is no room for love in Brecht’s world, and he shows us why.”
She said the style of performing was difficult for her to understand initially. “In Brecht, the idea is you are not supposed to illicit an empathic response from the audience. It's not about how ‘deeply’ you can connect with your character.”
She added,“Quite the opposite. The actors are supposed to be a conduit for the message of the playwright. He felt that getting swept away in emotions deterred and distracted the audience from receiving the full impact of the message.”
Diaz said she hopes that audiences will hear Brecht's confrontation of hypocrisy in commenting about societal structures, and in examining the opposing agendas in our own human nature. “I hope they will enjoy stretching themselves to receive a piece of theatre that is not just a fun, passive distraction, but an important piece of theatre that came as a rally cry in the late 1920s in Germany for authenticity in artistic expression, and facing the stark realities of the human condition as a result of poverty, war, and economic inequality.”
“The Threepenny Opera” is showing now through June 1 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, VA 22206. Tickets are $47 to $104. Showtimes are weekdays at 7:30 and 8 p.m.; Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Theater is dark on Mondays. Visit www.signature-theatre.org or call the box office at 703-820-9771.