What: The Threepenny Opera
When: Continues to Nov. 21, 8 p.m.
Where: Phoenix Theatre, University of Victoria
Tickets: $15 to $25; 250-721-8000
The financial meltdown of 2008 provided inspiration for Brian Richmond’s direction of The Threepenny Opera.
Opening tonight at the University of Victoria’s Phoenix Theatre, Richmond’s future-world production is set in 2028. The world economy has collapsed. Meanwhile, he has turned the character of Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum (the baddie who rules London’s beggars) into a cardboard-manufacturing magnate.
“All that’s left in the world is packaging. There are no more flat-screen TVs or refrigerators. There’s just the packaging. We’ve created this fantastical cardboard world as a filter though which this play is interpreted,” Richmond said.
The Threepenny Opera, created by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, had its Berlin première in 1928. When the musical (often dubbed a “play with music”) first opened, Germany was still reeling from the effects of the First World War, including rampant unemployment. Citizens were cynical about politics and new economic solutions. The Threepenny Opera — a satirical entertainment about beggar kings, harlots and knife-wielding maniacs — locked in with the country’s jaded zeitgeist.
Cardboard looms large physically as well as thematically in this Threepenny Opera (a full-length version that runs three hours with two intermissions). It’s a significant set element. Cardboard is also used in the costumes, including slightly risqué outfits worn by prostitute characters.
“The women have breastplates, their breasts are cardboard breasts. They’re almost cartoonish, right? In a strange way, it makes their sexuality more threatening and dominant,” said Richmond, a UVic theatre professor and artistic director of Blue Bridge Repertory Company.
The cardboard concept tips its hat to the idea that unstable economies are houses of cards. It also references “cardboard villages,” that is, cardboard shelters used by the homeless, Richmond added.
The cardboard set/costume design is practical as well as fanciful. The estate of the musical’s creators, Brecht and Weill, would allow UVic to stage the show only if it followed the original orchestration. It calls for a professional seven-piece band, a “huge expense” given the theatre department’s limited budget.
This combo, led by Hank Pine, features multi-instrumentalists playing keyboard, bass, percussion, flute, bassoon, saxophone, clarinet, trumpet, guitar and banjo. Jacques Lemay has choreographed The Threepenny Opera; Allan Stichbury and Pauline Stynes designed the set; the costumes are by Jacqueline Gilchrist.
Even if you’re not familiar with the Brecht/Weill masterpiece, you’ll recognize its greatest hit. Mack the Knife became a swinging Vegas standard, crooned by everyone from Bobby Darin to Ella Fitzgerald to Frank Sinatra.
For this Threepenny Opera, Richmond is using an edgier translation of the book and lyrics, created by Robert David MacDonald and Jeremy Sans for a 1994 London production.
Here’s the first verse of Mack the Knife from a popular 1954 translation:
Oh the shark has pretty teeth, dear
And he shows them pearly white
Just a jack-knife has Macheath, dear
And it keeps it out of sight!
Here’s the MacDonald/Sans version:
Though the shark’s teeth may be lethal.
Still you see them white and red.
But you won’t see Mackie’s flick-knife
’Cause he slashed you and you’re dead!
The Threepenny Opera’s key plot element revolves around the marriage of Macheath (a.k.a. Mack the Knife) to Polly Peachum. This annoys her father, Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, who lobbies to have him hanged. The story is wild and satirical. In bringing it to a modern audience, Richmond says he wanted to capture the flavour of another popular satire.
“I wanted to tap into a South Park sensibility. Not in terms of what it looks like, but in terms of the anarchic sensibility that exists in a lot of contemporary shows. Like South Park or the current Broadway hit, Book of Mormon.” he said.