Thursday, October 6, 2011

Occupy Weimar revisited: Threepenny Opera @ BAM 10.5.11

Update: Suchen Sie Occupy Weimar den Protest? Hier werden Sie die Facebook Seite finden.

Timing, they say, is everything, and what better week for the Berliner Ensemble to bring Die Dreigroschenoper to New York than in the third week of the Wall Street Occupation. Thus it is no surprise that the biggest audience reaction (laughter and cheers) of the evening was for Macheath's  gallows oration, and his comparison of the petty criminal to the incorporated criminal, roughly:  "We small, middle-class craftsmen, who toil with honest crowbars at the cash boxes of small-time shopkeepers, are being swallowed up by huge corporations, and the banks stand behind them.  What is a picklock compared to a share? What is robbing a bank compared to the founding of one?"

Not to belabor the point or anything.

One might think that Robert Wilson's production would get in the way of the piece -- certainly he's been accused of that before. Ben Brantley in the New York Times called it "frost-bitten", and it's easy to paint Wilson productions with that single brush, particularly his Noh-inspired, gesture-heavy extravaganzas of glacial movement and mostly blue color scheme (e.g. Lohengrin). But he doesn't always do things that way, and this is about the most continuously animated production I've seen of his, barring possibly Woyzeck (in which, if the actors weren't getting much of a workout, the people in the lighting booth definitely were). In fact, where Brantley saw in the actors' whitened faces the cold post- WWI irony of George Grosz, I was consistently reminded of Ren & Stimpy. That may say more about the origins of Ren & Stimpy, or it may say more about me.  Or it may all be pure coincidence. But there is that heightened cartoonish element inscribed in Wilson's choreography of the characters (of which facial movement is very much a part): the put-upon thieves, the boozy Mrs Peachum, Tiger Brown's happy-dance... In the end, if Wilson's approach puts the play into an emotionally inaccessible realm, well, that's sort of the point, isn't it? The only question then is if the whole Verfremdungseffekt is ultimately undone by Wilson's intriguingly designed stage pictures (cf Atys).

A professor of mine once described the concept of alienation in Epic Theater as "If something happens to draw you in emotionally, then, to derail that reaction, someone gets up and sings a song. Badly." In his review, Brantley compares the Broadway-style misconceptions of previous NY productions unfavorably to the Berliner Ensemble's more...can we say Brechtian without sounding tautological? their more Brechtian way of doing things, and rightly so. It's surprising how much more interesting those already interesting lyrics get when not approached like it's Wicked. Then, given the strictures of Wilsonian staging, one wonders how much the haphazard feel of the delivery is, like everything else, precisely planned, and how much is purely improvised.

Brantley described longueurs, but I didn't find any, even with the first act clocking in at two hours. If I had any suggestion to make (not that anyone's asking), it would be to find a simpler translation of the text for the supertitles. John Willet's 1976 translation -- meant for performance, not for a gloss -- is funny and fantastically singable, but also wordy and thus often hard to read in fast succession. (Also, much as we love it, he does tend to over-sharpen Brecht's often very blunt language.)  As happens with supertitles, this left audience reaction out of synch with the actors' delivery. Some of that is inevitable, but a lot of it might have been mitigated with a more tailored rendering.

It's up through this Saturday but tickets are thin on the ground, so call the BAM box office (718.636.4100) or go Occupy Lafayette Avenue.

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