It’s not all light, it’s not all “right” but, it’s certainly all tight. San Jose Stage’s The Three Penny Opera is full of dark, biting satire, political commentary and very stylized performances, consistent in its choices throughout and solidly stocked with talent. Overall, I liked the production, I liked its very Brechtian approach, but there could be some folks for whom this show is just too out there and I can certainly see how they might feel this way. While there is a relatively linear plot and some memorable music, this show is for lack of a better term, unconventionally weird. I think though, that with the right expectation, even the most traditional of audience might learn to embrace the weird.
My most “helpful” takeaway from studying/performing Brecht in high school was that “shocking the audience out of their complacency” at every opportunity, was a big thing. Telling a story steeped in real issues and not only politically commenting on those issue, but constantly disrupting the “entertainment” of the theater and breaking the “4th wall” as it were, was one of the main objectives of this theatrical movement. So, just when you start to be entertained by the music, or start to recognize a hummable melody, or start to get caught up in the emotional exchanges between characters, Brecht and his partner Kurt Weil have a way of abruptly putting an end to it, changing the tone drastically, bringing in unpredictable themes, filing the score with atonal discord or addressing the audience in order to remind them, they aren’t there to ignore realities. The theater, in this instance, is not meant to assist you in escape. Everyone is being judged, everyone is essentially guilty and nothing is sacred, even the art of Opera itself is put on trial for aiding and abetting.
The Stage’s versions’ vision and execution seems to be in this very vein, respectful of the original intent of being spread thick with raw reality and ridiculously unrealistic at the same time. The production very much plays with you as an audience and tests you in many ways. The Stage is liberal in incorporating vintage as well as more modern versions of “shock” value into the production and agree or disagree with the specifics of the choices, I can’t fault anyone for being incredibly detailed and consistent with them.
Take for example the costuming and makeup which resembles that of marionettes and the choreography that alludes to strings being pulled and lack of genuine control. What puppets we all are, actors, the characters in the story and the roles we play in the real world, pulling strings or having our own strings pulled, what a shame and shame on us, the whole lot of us. It’s jarring and bizarre, it’s unsetting in some ways, it’s forced and laughable, but honestly, it works.
While the vocals were really strong, part of me wanted a bit more variance in volume and delivery. It’s an intimate space and the actors all had microphones. There is a world of opportunity that exists when those two elements are at play. I would have loved to have more whispers and soft parts to contrast and highlight the sharp, brassy, belting and screaming that the entire cast is capable of and that seemed to dominate easily 80% of the show. Their eyes, body, costumes and ambient lighting told the stories more than their voices did, which I thought was the only really lacking and fixable component of this show. All the rest of the elements had texture and depth, the singing, while excellent, just felt less dynamic than it could have been and I thought needed to be to pack a real punch.
My biggest challenge was the translation which all I can say is markedly different from the ones I’m familiar with. It does change some of the impact and creates different impact where it could be argued there was none before. The songs are still there that you might know, just a bit… different. If you’ve never seen a production or read it, this likely won’t bother you at all, but there was an expectation for me personally that was a bit let down on this front.
You should be warned, this is also a LONG show. The first half especially comes in at well over 90 minutes and it’s a large chunk to bite off initially while you are trying to get used to not knowing what to expect next. Use your restroom, take your drink IN with you and get comfortable (a relative term given the theatrical diversionary tactics at play) for optimal enjoyment. The second act is funnier, faster and easier to take in, well worth the “wait” for sure.
Again, with this show, anything that makes you “uncomfortable” can really be spun as an asset to the integrity of the Brechtian slant. I’d suggest approaching it like this: Count each time you react to something, every time you’re made aware you’re in a theater, forced to object, disagree, form any kind of an opinion about something, take note of anything that seems “out of place.” Each time you make a tally in your head, whether it is positive or ultimately negative, you’re playing an active role and you’re getting an authentic Brechtian experience. In those moments particularly, you are experiencing the genius of the format as well as the loyalty of this production to that end. 3 ½ jewels out of 5 in the review tiara for a bold and unswerving interpretation of a challenging piece of historically relevant theater. The Three Penny Opera plays through March 30th at the Stage in San Jose.