Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Threepenny Opera

Brecht cut against his own intrinsic sentimentality by constantly breaking down the fourth wall and reminding us that all was fake, all was artifice, and the human condition was far too complex to tolerate the idealizations of catharsis. This is what is known as the Verfremdungseffekt, or alienation effect. Robert Wilson out-Verfremdungseffekts even Brecht in his current production of The Threepenny Opera at BAM. Firstly, it’s Wilson, so everything is slowed down. Secondly, the production is a virtual iconography party, from the scratching sounds of an old phonograph to Chaplinesque vaudevillian touches and sound effects that evoke the themes of ingestion and regurgitation that are so intrinsic to Brecht’s characterization of man as beast. The world is poor and man is shit. Food is the first thing. Morals follow. The words evoke the classic Brechtian theme of man as a thinking animal. The famed Theater de Lys production with Lotte Lenya that became a Manhattan institution spawned an LP that many baby boomers grew up listening to. One may question the extravagance of Wilson’s direction, which almost seems in competition with earlier interpretations, like the one at the de Lys, with their more intimate cacophonies. At the same time there are two things that really bring the crème to the surface. One is the performance by the Berliner Ensemble, which Brecht and his wife Helene Weigel founded. The other is Wilson’s mastery at creating a spectacle out of human consciousness. There is nothing like hearing The Threepenny Opera in German. Mack the Knife becomes Mackie Messer, and Stefan Kurt will probably turn out to be one of the great Macheaths.

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