Run to gallows: Beg, steal or kill to catch Robert Wilson’s historic ‘Threepenny Opera’ before it’s gone

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The Berliner Ensemble. (Stephanie Berger)
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Robert Wilson’s three-hour production of The Threepenny Opera, presented this week in a rare local appearance by the Berliner Ensemble, the company Bertolt Brecht founded in 1949, is at once the most satisfying and disturbing music drama I have ever seen presented on a New York stage.

I won't attempt to justify that rather extreme assessment before presenting an important foreword: The brutally compact four-night run of this show, which you’d think could run at full capacity for weeks (if not months), closes with the Oct. 8 performance; while the last remaining performance is technically sold out, the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s website advertises “limited availability” through its box office line at (718) 636-4100, which opens at noon on Satuday, Oct. 8. Your best bet is to call it, since requests seem to be outstripping sale offers 10 to 1 right now, over on the Craigslist marketplace.

The answer to the question of why anyone might go to so much trouble to see this show lies, in part, with simple star-power. It’s true that Robert Wilson is a leading light of the experimental theater scene at BAM, and has been for over 40 years—but he’s not the star with the greatest wattage here. Threepenny as a drama—that is, as the narrative of a celebrity gangster, his wife, his crooked cop friend and his whores—entered popular lore long ago. The star is the piece itself.

But the music of Threepenny is really what brings everyone to the yard: In the hands of Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Teresa Stratas and, of course, Lotte Lenya, the hit numbers have become bona fide staples of the American songbook, as unlikely as that might seem to anyone who heard these songs first in Germany in 1928.

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Debates over how to stage Brecht are traditionally limited to the academy, but almost everyone has an opinion about how Kurt Weill’s music should sound. And so the most fervent arguments about Threepenny are usually waged between musical theater aficionados and opera-goers, who can tussle endlessly over the vocal qualities that best suit Weill’s music.

(Aside: If you want the most “operatic” version, see the John Mauceri-conducted C.D. for the Decca Label. For early Broadway verisimilitude and unfortunate English-language bowdlerizing, the original cast recording of 1954 with Lenya is worth hearing. For the most complete version on disc, with all of Weill’s incidental music, your best bet is the 1999 R.C.A. recording by Ensemble Modern. A two-C.D. set of vinyl sides issued contemporaneously in Germany after the play’s 1928 smash-hit premiere has recently been remastered and reissued by Capriccio.)

But this question—whether it's better for the singers to belt cabaret-style or luxuriate in perfect vibrato—sidesteps the issue of Bertolt Brecht’s text almost entirely. The best approach, as Wilson and the Berliner Ensemble have discovered here, is to admit of both styles, at different moments. The nine-piece pit band assembled for this production follows a similar aesthetic logic: They stomp through the overture but can gently cradle the aria in which Polly confirms to her parents that she has married Macheath.

The performances here, by the way, are uniformly excellent, from Lucy’s surprise moments of coloratura to Mrs. Peachum’s drunken screams. Overall, the cast seems capable of executing anything asked by either Brecht, Weill or the present director.

About that director: Wilson’s pacing amounts to a revelation. Its chief conceptual strength resides in the way it pushes back—hard—against the conception that Brecht’s recitative (or spoken) scenes are best run through quickly, the better to create a hit-strewn night of Weill songs that can play like Now That’s What I Call Music 1928!

In an introduction to the Penguin edition of Brecht’s text, Nadine Gordimer wrote that Brecht’s play can “jolt one into new confrontation with our own conditioning in our own time.” And sure enough, some of its themes can seem depressingly evergreen; a line about bankers-as-devils netted a house-wide guffaw and solidarity-clap on Thursday night. But it’s rare for Brecht’s acid to cut through only one layer of society, in this play. And because the version at BAM this week is three hours long, the proud-liberal audience wasn’t permitted to clap over a following line: “Don’t laugh like fools, behind your big moustaches.” (Guess what, BAM audience? Many of you are in the 1 percent.)

“The play has a double nature,” Brecht said during a Stockholm lecture in 1939, adding: “Instruction and entertainment conflict openly.”

The glacial pacing and ritualized, slo-mo gesturing that are by now familiar tics of Wilson’s stagecraft have rarely seemed as justified or as purposeful as they do here, where they stretch Brecht’s conflict over a span of time that runs twice as long as any Threepenny recording on C.D.

When Macheath heads for the gallows, it takes forever—as does the satiric reprieve Brecht provides for Mac at the hands of the Mounted Messenger. But precisely because it all takes place in Wilson time, the audience is given enough space to recall the recent, Twitter-chronicled delay during which Troy Davis’ life seemed potentially rescuable. The effect of a life in the balance, so cheaply observed (and then shruggingly accepted), feels radical once again—and fully stripped of several decades’ worth of Roaring Twenties/Weimar nostalgia. Per Brecht’s theory of alienation, we don’t feel empathy for the characters in the drama, but rather for the inconsistent presence of justice in our own world—and a fate we still hope to improve through our collective begging.