A current production of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, directed by Matthew Gardiner at Signature Theatre, has caused a stir with lots of contradicting opinions about the merits of performance, concept, and the writing itself. I was most shocked to hear a question bantered about, “Has Brecht’s time come and gone?!” I had to see for myself.
This is in no way intended as a review, but rather a reflection through conversation about the specific challenges in approaching Brecht as an artist or, for that matter, an audience member. Perhaps it will stir up thought and, I hope, conversation.
So, what does Brecht have to say to us today? I spoke to director Matthew Gardiner and performers Bobby Smith and Natascia Diaz who play M. Peachum and Jenny in Signature Theatre’s production.
In your mind, does an artist approach Brecht differently than other playwrights?
Natascia: Absolutely. I was not aware of that until I went in the first day of rehearsal. I had never been aware of Brecht’s intention and how he wanted his work to be presented. It’s the polar opposite of what you are taught in Stanislavsky-based acting classes and most American theatre programs. In Brecht your ultimate goal is not illuminating the empathic response by creating a realistic sympathetic depiction of a character, nor do you fill yourself with emotion of the moment.
Bobby: It was my first Brecht. Reading about how Brecht’s rendering an audience emotionless was disturbing, challenging for me as an actor, I’ll admit. In most theatre, say I’m playing a soldier, I’ll learn all about the history, circumstances and environment of a particular soldier. In Brecht, you forego all that; here you’re a soldier because you say you’re a soldier. Here it’s statement about class, type, and society as a whole. Because of that, I think with Brecht the stakes are high and have to remain high.
Matthew: It becomes the directors’ job to keep the big picture foremost. What is the big question being asked? Am I in service to the big point Brecht is trying to make?
How did you prepare to direct this show?
Matthew: I think I read everything there was to read on Brecht, but it became overwhelming very quickly. So much contemporary theatre has been influenced by Brecht. At some point, I had to trust that it had all permeated, but I had to let go of the techniques. I had to believe I had an understanding and ideas to put forward to a contemporary audience.
Tell us about the rehearsal process and your own special challenges.
Bobby: Each of the characters represents a kind of archetype. My Character, Mr. Peachum, is about getting as much money as he can and about survival. You can’t be concerned about making an audience like you, and you don’t have time to feel your way through the play. That’s hard. But Mr. Peachum is recognizable, don’t you think? He’s the new kind of beggary, a payday loans guy who robs from the poor.
Anyone wishing to glean a few crumbs from society must obey the laws, but the laws themselves are designed for the exploitation of the people. Everyone in the show has a way of surviving in this system.
Matthew: It being my first time directing a Brecht piece, there was a lot of trial and error and a lot of discussion. The challenge was not to get hung up on questions of minutiae. For example, Natascia Diaz and I talked a lot about what her character represents – the futility of love. At the end, in the big scheme of things, according to Brecht, love has so little staying power and in what we do.
Natascia: It was a big paradigm shift. The idea of charting the character’s arc, what’s happening, the character’s background, and how she changes, is irrelevant. So where do you put your focus? The nature of my track as Jenny is that she comes on in little spurts and then leaves. It’s other worldly and out of time. Perhaps my role was a little easier for me to hold onto the Brechtian goal of “no affect” or very little effect. I had a lot of help from Matt. He was able from the outside help me know what was reading and what wasn’t, when it was energetically getting too hot and when it needed to come back and why it had to come back. He helped me understand where to put all my fire.
How did the collaboration with the designers help you arrive at your work for this production?
Matthew: In this new adaptation by Robert David MacDonald there are no stage directions in the script and no design notes. However, Macdonald states that history repeats itself. MacDonald put the play in a place where we could understand it, and so did Micha Kachman, the set designer. The big element of his set are the words “life,’” “liberty,” and “the pursuit of happiness.” We started to talk about graffiti and tags and how the young leave graffiti because it tells society “I was here.” The image of those words forces us to question ourselves and our times.
Bobby: Macheath’s hoods are current “Chavs,” antisocial lower class louts strutting around in stolen fashion. They are of our times. The Peachums are stuck in 1950’s- meet-the-80’s, and costume designer Frank Labovitz spoke to that history too. The set captures the bastardized commercialized world, the poverty industry, and the people who try to glamorize and coopt poverty. Right underneath the tickertape, Peachum runs his sordid business. It’s my little ghastly runway “fashion factory” for the poor.
Natascia: The world of Threepenny gives just enough sense of place, but the ideas are always prominent even on the set. The idea is the where in our world. We roam around the words life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We are walking around literally on the ideas.
Is the experience of performing Brecht also different?
Natascia: Normally, it’s about what you would do to get the audience to feel empathy for you and understand the reasons why you’ve landed where you have.
When the emotion in the character is not the point, it’s very challenging. But what I have found on the inside is that deeper sense of purity of a representation of a state. Truly, in the Socrates song, it’s the most naked I have even been on the stage. I don’t have any emotion or interpretive choices, all that I usually rely on. Love is irrelevant in the job of self-preservation.
This may not be what Brecht intended, but do you think the more you hold back something as a character, the more response you can elicit from an audience, because people recognize a within-tension with a kind of double awareness?
Natascia: Yes, exactly. It’s about how long and how deeply you bury that emotion and fire. Then the Pimp’s Tango becomes a representation of a moment of what was and what could have been between Jenny and Macheath.
That’s the essence of a tango, surely – the smoldering beneath, and then it’s gone? Is the moment “Brechtian” because the audience is aware of being in a theatre, of the theatricality of a moment?
Natascia: It’s about receiving the ghost of the relationship of what Mac and Jenny’s relationship was. It makes the audience grapple with why she would betray him perhaps. It becomes an interesting part of the story to inhabit.
Matthew, someone said you had “turned a perfectly good story about human folly into something grotesque?” What is your response?
Matthew: You hear the word ‘didactic’ when people say they don’t care for Brecht. It became clear early on that this adaptation had the feel of the present moment. It was never my intentions to be shocking, but I didn’t want and I don’t think Brecht wanted to settle for a “perfectly good story” about human folly.
Natascia: There is no catharsis in singing these numbers. It’s a load and feels bleak. I do feel the little remnants of that bleakness when I go to work, or when I’m there all day in a two-show day. To present the ideas like this – it costs. But I find in the newness some tantalizing enjoyment too. I feel I’m fulfilling some important duty.
Can you say something more to help someone coming to see the show who may not know Brecht?
Bobby: A lot of people want to come see a show and want to see either what they think about Brecht or with a need for redemption and catharsis. This show challenges all that. It asks you to consider that art can be different. It’s not uplifting and it may even be hard to sit through, but it is intelligent, intellectual and strong.
We know Macheath does terrible things but we don’t see it. Instead, perhaps we should see his hanging as a way out. That’s a kind of redemption.
Natascia: I would say, be prepared to think. Be prepared to listen actively. Be prepared to receive. So much entertainment is passive. This show asks you to come out of yourself in ways we are not used to and grapple with how we live in our society.
The production has kept me thinking, and I harken back to other productions of Brecht that have stopped me in my tracks. There was Colleen Dewhurst at the Vivian Beaumont in The Good Woman of Setzuan. There was a production of Mother Courage at Arena – not the most recent – with Viveca Lindfors and directed by Gilbert Moses. The cast also included Jane Alexander as the mute daughter, Ned Beatty, Richard Bauer, and Robert Prosky. The same play had a production at the Boston Shakespeare which I was in and also understudied Linda Hunt. Director Tim Mayer served up quite a central image of this small woman in such a big role fighting in a huge and hostile universe, and Frank Rich wrote “a Mother Courage with bite and tears.”
Mayer taught me many great lessons about Brecht during the rehearsal process, as he had seen several original works in the Berliner Ensemble. He would say, “Americans get it so wrong so often, thinking it’s all about “poor and dure” blackbox theatre. Brecht’s original theatre was opulent, the proscenium decorated with putti, those ornate little cherubs, and it was that very opulence that gave him grist to develop a theatre that would always project the troubling tension between the “haves” and the “have nots.”
In this production, there’s something sad and alienated about every one of these creatures. Jenny has a role she’s forced to play. Macheath is not charismatic and sexy. He’s just a guy living off his older, scarier reputation with the beginning of paunch and some leftover bad tattoos. His life is reduced to hanging out with his chavs. There’s only the one way out for him. In that, there may be a kind of redemption.