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‘The Threepenny Opera’ tells a cautionary tale

SANTA FE, N.M. — It may have its genesis in an 18th-century English ballad opera, but the themes of corruption and inequality in “The Threepenny Opera” still resonate.

A cast of 30 students at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design discussed those themes during rehearsals for their debut performance tonight at the Greer Garson Theatre, director Kenn McLaughlin said in a recent interview. McLaughlin, the artistic director of the Stages Repertory Theatre in Houston, is enthusiastic about his cast.

“They are really embracing the Brecht, and they I think they are growing and learning,” he said. “But they are also really, really quite polished, so it’s been exciting for me.”

German lyricist Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill, and their character Macheath – a.k.a. “Mack the Knife” – turned theater on its head while attacking the status quo of the post-World War I Weimar Republic when the musical play premiered in Berlin in 1928.

At the same time, they launched a jazz-pop standard whose popularity has never waned,”The Ballad of Mack the Knife,” best known in performances by Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darin.

Director Kenn McLaughlin, from Stages Repertory Theatre in Houston, oversees a rehearsal of "The Threepenny Opera." (Andy Stiny/For Journal North)

Director Kenn McLaughlin, from Stages Repertory Theatre in Houston, oversees a rehearsal of “The Threepenny Opera.” (Andy Stiny/For Journal North)

“It’s a special play, it’s a very, very unique piece of theater and it speaks to a very particular moment in Germany,” said McLaughlin. “You kind of get a feeling of that Weimar Republic sound … and that also has a really powerful echo today, to think about the rise of anti-semitism in Europe again, and you can hear some of those strains of that. It’s a cautionary tale, there’s no doubt about it.”

As the leader of London’s beggars, murderer Macheath was the quintessential anti-hero before anti-heroes. Macheath is a precursor to Dexter, the blood-spatter expert from TV, and Walter White of “Breaking Bad,” said McLaughlin.

Revolutionary theater

The original English version of “The Threepenny Opera” by John Gay “was so breakthrough in the 1700s, it took the world and turned it upside down,” McLaughlin said.

“So instead of having the kings and the queens and courtiers, and all those folk … it’s all the anti-heroes that are at the top of the food chain. It’s the thieves and the whores, and the whole play revolves around the greatest sociopath of all. So it kind of turns the whole social structure upside down in a way that we had never seen.”

Koppany Pusztai, an SFUAD junior acting major, follows in the footprints of those who portrayed Macheath before. Tim Curry took the role in London’s West End in 1986 and Sting sang the “Mack the Knife” (“Die Moritat von Mackie Messer”) in the original German on Broadway in 1989.

What challenges did Pusztai foresee in playing the picaresque killer?

“The biggest one for me is that he is probably the character most unlike me that I have ever played,” said Pusztai. “When I was handed this chunk of meat, I was very surprised and also I was excited for the challenge, because Mack the Knife, although charming and handsome – he may seem approachable – but he is also volatile and doesn’t have an ounce of moral fiber in him.”

Pusztai considers himself an actor who sings and says that “The Threepenny Opera” is a play with music. “This style of music, this German – very loud and in-your-face type of music – is not about how pretty you sound, it’s about the message,” said Pusztai, who wants to pursue an acting career.

The themes of income inequality, spawned on the Dickensian streets of London and imbued with the German authors’ socialist view of pre-Hitler Nazi Germany, are messages that live on, McLaughlin and Pusztai agree.

Isaac Navarro rehearses his role of Street Singer in the Santa Fe University of Art and Design's production of "The Threepenny Opera." (Andy Stiny/For Journal North)

Isaac Navarro rehearses his role of Street Singer in the Santa Fe University of Art and Design’s production of “The Threepenny Opera.” (Andy Stiny/For Journal North)

Brecht’s production “ultimately says, at the end of the day, if we allow the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer, if we continue to ignore the neediest in our society, eventually there will be no morality left and the criminals will rule the world,” McLaughlin said.

Discussions about staging the production at SFUAD started 18 months ago. McLaughlin chuckled when asked how Brecht’s and Weill’s message plays today.

“The play is a critique of capitalism, and it’s a critique of any system that spins out of balance when any human being steps on another human being to get what they want,” he said.

“This is human nature, it is human nature to strive to get ahead. But some of those choices that we make to get ahead put other people behind, and what kind of person does that make us? That’s one of the biggest questions in the play – it really asks big, moral questions about the way in which a society is shaped and what we are willing to accept, and that’s probably the thing about it that makes it the most relevant today.”

Local relevance

For Pusztai, 21, the themes of “Threepenny” also have relevance locally, after the recent news that the for-profit SFUAD is closing after the 2017-18 school year.

“Our specific situation of the school closing down – it was a corporation that kind of screwed over a bunch of college students that were already broke and had nowhere else to go.”

Pusztai also sees the parallels with broader global events and threats.

“Bertolt Brecht was all about putting it in the audience’s faces, shocking them out of this dream world they are living, waking them up, opening their eyes to what is actually going on around them …,” said Pusztai.

In the end, McLaughlin really wants the audience to laugh.

“One of things I want to make sure people know is that it’s really funny. When you start thinking about ‘The Threepenny Opera,’ people start thinking really serious, socialist, political statements, and all of that is in there, but … Brecht was a really hopeful person and the reason the play was one of the most popular in history is because it’s really funny, and it’s really fun and it challenges your imagination.”