By GAETANA CALDWELL-SMITH
“The Threepenny Opera.” Book and lyrics by Bertolt Brecht, music by Kurt Weill, translation by Michael Feingold.
Directed by Cary Perloff, American Conservatory Theatre (ACT), San Francisco.
Many of Bertolt Brecht’ s works have been and are being produced worldwide to celebrate Brecht’s centennial, though he was born in 1898.
When Brecht was 22 years old, John Gay’s 1728 English musical satire, “The Beggar’s Opera,” opened to raves in London. The work fascinated Brecht. Later, he and Kurt Weill reinvented the piece as a raucus mock opera aimed at the moral decadence of Weimar capitalism.
Launched in 1928 as “The Threepenny Opera,” it was an instant success-although the bourgeois establishment denounced it-and it became a classic which still draws full houses wherever it is performed.
Under ACT’s Cary Perloff’s direction, “Threepenny” is loosely set in early 20th Century Barbary Coast San Francisco. This version, completed by Michael Feingold for the 1989 Broadway production that starred rockstar Sting as Macheath, is purged of the British references included in previous translations.
The San Francisco setting invokes thrown-to-the-winds “vaudeville, prostitution, hedonism, and gang warfare,” according to the director.
Perloff said, “I wanted to establish a reality for the operatic characters in “Threepenny” within the poetic landscape Brecht created, that is not so remote from our own experience. … In reading about the American musical scene of the [turn of the century] … which greatly influenced Weill, I realized that high culture and low life have always coexisted in this city [San Francisco].”
Critic Hans Keller once described “Threepenny Opera” as “the weightiest possible lowbrow opera for highbrows and the most full-blooded highbrow musical for lowbrows.”
The ACT production included such anachronistic touches as baseball caps worn backwards and baggy clothes, to give it a feeling of the city over the decades since the 1920s. If Perloff was willing to add these touches, maybe she should have shown the police in riot gear, holding plastic shields and roughing up the homeless at the finale.
We thought of the irony of watching, from from our comfortable, plush second-balcony seats, a comic opera about beggars, knowing that on the street just outside, beggars panhandled.
Afterwards, we strolled across Geary Street to a restaurant, next door to which sat a couple in a doorway, bundled up in blankets. “Threepenny” nagged my conscience so I gave them some money, whereas, at another time, I might have just smiled and said hello.
I compared audience members, who have enough disposable income to afford to pay anywhere from $24 to $60 for seats, to the people begging handouts from us as we left the theater, and to the homeless sitting or lying on the sidewalks and in doorways in the surrounding Tenderloin.
I got this sudden inspiration to buy $1000 worth of orchestra-seating tickets and pass them out to the homeless. I wanted to sit in the audience and watch the reactions of the regular subscribers when they found themselves sitting next to them. Perhaps the regulars would think it a clever staging device. Will this, or any, current production of “Threepenny,” get wealthy theater-goers up in arms about social inequities? Don’t hold your breath.
The kicker at the end of Perloff’s production was the lowering from the flies of a blow-up of a gold-crowned San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, as the new Emperor.
Willie Brown and his side-kick Amos Brown have succeeded not only in criminalizing the homeless, but through political mechanizations, deprived many of shelter by shutting down the Mission Rock homeless facility, with no pre-planning as to where the evicted were to go once it closed.
Mission Rock will be leveled for a parking lot to accommodate sports fans headed to the new Pac Bell Park. We all know that convenience parking is way more important than providing amenities for the disenfranchised.
This closing will put more homeless on the street, who will join the thousands already traipsing like wraiths from one place to another, with their sad bundles on their backs and in carts.
As long as there are politicians to be bribed, thugs, capitalist exploiters of wage-earners, criminals, prostitutes, corrupt police departments, poor people, homeless beggars, gangs, and greed, there will always be an audience for “The Threepenny Opera.”
And yet the wealthy bourgeoisie, when leaving the theater, will not see the faceless people over whom they step to get into their waiting limousines and cabs.
“This is our Brechtian landscape,” Perloff added. “All the contradictions are here.” She said it. Big time.