Magazine article The New Yorker

Dress-Up

Magazine article The New Yorker

Dress-Up

Article excerpt

DRESS-UP

BY HILTON ALS

Style in three new stagings.Martha Clarke's "Threepenny Opera" revival is less about style than about posing.

Style, when it works, can be a startling and pleasurable thing. But the American response to it is often complicated. It's not unusual for one's fellow-citizens to resist imaginatively decorated people, environments, or cuisines: falling for such manicured charm, they fear, would be a sign of shallowness. While style is, generally speaking, about surfaces, there can be something deep, moral, and anarchic about it, too. I think Kennedy Fraser was right when she remarked, in this magazine, in 1973, that a "touch of outrageousness" can be "a moral obligation." And that's because style is the enemy of middle-of-the-road thinking--of what Fraser called "meanness, calculation, petty-mindedness, and the base fear of going out on a limb." Sussing out real style in American theatre today requires one to go out on a kind of limb, avidly searching for shows that are more than just a series of producers' calculations.

Truman Capote, a grand stylist himself, argued that "high style has never been a forte of the Western theatre," but he must not have been thinking of theatre artists like Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, whose incredible first collaboration, "The Threepenny Opera" (1928), is an exercise in nasty style. Its creators, drawing on the energy they found in the trashy newspaper stories they read, the myths they heard about America, the foul-smelling tango palaces they visited, put together a collage, whose glue was the cynicism that informed life in Berlin, as Germany slid into the Great Depression. Set partly in London's Soho--Brecht had never been to England when he and Weill started work on the piece, but he liked to invent things about real places--the show opens at a fair, where, Brecht says, "the beggars are begging, the thieves are stealing, the whores are whoring." In the director and choreographer Martha Clarke's new staging (an Atlantic Theatre Company production, at the Linda Gross), Mr. Peachum (F. Murray Abraham), who runs a sort of school and way station for thieves and panhandlers--"Threepenny" is based on John Gay's "The Beggar's Opera"--tells us a bit about the world we're entering as he pulls back the heavy curtain, like an illusionist in love not with fantasy but with the con.

A scantily clad woman writhes against a wall as another woman, drunk and passed out, is kicked awake by a man. (The female characters, appropriately and creatively dressed by Donna Zakowska, remind one of Deborah Turbeville's wanted and wanting models, all done up in Weltschmerz-tinted makeup.) A Street Singer (the beautiful-of-face-and-voice John Kelly) enters and performs the famous "Ballad of Mack the Knife," about the man at the center of this crummy world, where cobblestones and souls exist to be spat on: a pimp named Macheath (the sexy, strapping Michael Park), who, when we meet him, has just married Mr. Peachum's daughter, Polly (Laura Osnes, whose Linda Ronstadt-like voice is very true). There are things that Polly doesn't know about her husband: before they met, he knocked up a woman named Lucy Brown (Lilli Cooper, perfectly cast), who is carrying not only his child but a hatred for Polly that is matched in intensity only by the despair that another of Macheath's lovers, Jenny (Sally Murphy), feels whenever she's alone or in his presence. Jenny is not your typical scorned woman: she's careful about her carelessness; Mack's pimping her out is just one of the shitty things that life has offered her and she has held on to. Jenny is a tragic figure, in the real sense of the word: she can't change the course of her life; everything has been predetermined.

Drawn but beautiful, Murphy certainly looks the part, but she's not given much of a chance to make a character out of Jenny. As Murphy sings her big number, "Pirate Jenny," Nina Simone's infinitely more powerful rendition comes to mind, diminishing the actress's efforts. …

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