A ‘Threepenny Opera’ For The 99 Percent

Martha Clarke and the Atlantic Theater Company team up on a classic play with rich contemporary overtones.

03/24/2014 - 20:00
Jewish Week Correspondent
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The acclaimed dance-theater artist Martha Clarke says she has, for “some unknown reason,” always been “drawn to the historical.”

Maybe Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s “The Threepenny Opera” is the reason. She certainly has some history with the classic theater work about criminality and corruption set during the waning days of the pre-World War II Weimar Republic in Germany.

When Clarke was 13, she went to the American production of “Threepenny” that opened in 1956. It was lyricist and librettist Marc Blitzstein’s adaptation, and Weill’s widow, Lotte Lenya, performed in the cast (she had great stage presence, Clarke notes). Clarke credits the production as an inspiration for her career as a performer.

“I loved the music, and I learned it by heart,” she said of songs like “Mack the Knife,” which became an American standard. “So it’s wonderful to actually be putting my fingers in the dough.”

Clarke is the director and choreographer of the Atlantic Theater Company’s new Off-Broadway production of “Threepenny,” starring F. Murray Abraham, Mary Beth Peil and Laura Osnes, which opens next month at the Linda Gross Theater. And that “dough” (in the slang sense of the word) has a particularly resonant ring given today’s national debates about income inequality, the corrupting influence of money and white-collar, Wall Street crime.

Brecht and Weill adapted the 18th-century English work “The Beggar’s Opera,” by John Gay, into a German operetta in the late-1920s, before Weimar crumbled and gave way to Naziism. A stinging critique of capitalism, the newer work, set in Victorian-era London, centers on the rivalry between the criminal Macheath and his father-in-law, who controls the city’s beggars. There are several translations of “Threepenny” in English, and one of the most notable is Blitzstein’s. His adaptation of the text, with
Weill’s score, was not only a great artistic achievement, but also a unification of the artistic efforts of two Jewish men whose work persisted after the Holocaust destroyed so much Jewish art and so many Jewish artists.

Weill and Blitzstein came from very different backgrounds. Weill’s father was a religious cantor in Germany, and some of the composer’s earliest recorded works were Jewish in content. Blitzstein was born in Philadelphia to a secular Russian-Jewish family, and though his parents raised him with a music education,  his father was a prominent businessman. But both men were drawn to progressive politics typical of Jews of the time period.

“They were both sort of coming out of this leftist tradition, and I think there’s something about that,” Neil Pepe, the artistic director of the Atlantic Theater Company, told The Jewish Week. “They were not necessarily speaking the same language, but at least they were coming at things [from a similar place] and had a certain understanding of each other. And that’s a unity that works.”

Pepe and Clarke had been discussing ways she could work with the Atlantic, when Clarke proposed a new production of “Threepenny”; Pepe felt Clarke would be a perfect fit for the piece.

“Her approach and our approach has always been about serving the story of the play,” he said. “Making it as vibrant as possible [is the way] we think it will speak to a contemporary audience. … I think it will all grow very organically out of what the piece is.”

Clarke, 69, is perhaps best known for her 1984 dance-theater piece “Garden of Earthly Delights,” based on the painting by 15th-century master Hieronymus Bosch. Her accolades include a MacArthur award, as well as multiple Obie awards, Guggenheim Foundation grants and National Endowment for the Arts grants. A less well-known fact is that like Blitzstein, she was raised in a secular Jewish household, and like Weill, some of her family emigrated from pre-war Germany.

Despite being raised “without much religion,” Clarke recognizes her shared roots with the piece.

“The kind of Expressionism [in “Threepenny”] is part of my gene pool,” she added, “whether it’s German Expressionism or another kind. But then, does that become part of our blood DNA? I don’t know. But I feel comfortable in this era. And the Jewishness is probably part of it.”

Whether through nature or nurture, Clarke has created a production of which Brecht might approve: a stage divided by a series of rough curtains, and stark lighting cues to highlight the performance of songs. Above all, the convincingly derelict ensemble is in constant motion, doing as much to highlight the world of the play as the libretto. Even as they flop about in squalor, a blink or gaze in the wrong direction means missing a pickpocketing, or a dirty business deal undertaken, or a start-to-finish, silent human tragedy. The production is raw and sardonic, but never despairing.

Though Gay’s original work was penned more than 200 years ago, its theme of underhandedness and criminal activity still feels fresh and incisive in 2014.

“I think the same corruption goes on and on,” said Clarke. “It’s not pre-WWII whatsoever now. But think of [Bernard] Madoff, think of bankers, for instance. It’s not old news; it’s very current in its own way. Some things don’t change.”

With the play, noted Pepe, “we’re looking at this portrait of what money and corruption can do to a society, and what happens to poor people in a society. And what’s going on in America — the more we looked at it, it seemed like a perfect time [to mount a production]. … Corporations getting larger and corruption seemingly getting rampant and the poor getting poorer.

“And of course, these issues could be highlighted with beautiful art; you have a piece that musically is so extraordinary and so beautiful,” Pepe continued. “There’s something about the music — the melodies, the lyrics, and how they work together, and how they sort of define the characters and define the feel of the piece that is really extraordinary.”

For Clarke, the feel of the piece is something she’s held within herself from the time she was a young teenager. “It’s been wonderful,” she said of the new production, “to kind of go back and open the door on this period.”

The Atlantic Theater Company’s “The Threepenny Opera” is in previews at the Linda Gross Theater, 336 W. 20th St., (212) 691-5919, atlantictheater.org. Tickets from $20. Opens April 7. Through May 4. At each performance there will be a lottery for tickets that cost literally three pennies.

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