The three penny opera

Lyssa Beyer

“You are about to see an opera for beggars. Since this opera was conceived with a splendor only a beggar could imagine, and since it had to be so cheap even a beggar could afford it, it is called the threepenny opera.”

Thus, narrator and senior Chris Goltz begins the performance of the infamous “Threepenny Opera” in Riverside Theatre this week. The show, originally written in German by playwright Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill, takes on a “dark, ironic and sexual” tone, cast members said.

The UW-Eau Claire cast combines its talents for strong vocals and a passion for character development with a very fitting stage and costume design.

“We have quite a good cast,” said Mitra Sadeghpour, the show’s musical director. “It’s a quirky show, and it really gets in your head.”

The show revolves around Macheath – “Mack the Knife” -played by junior CJ Krueger, an anti-hero the audience just can’t like. Mac is a rapist, murderer, thief and womanizer who, despite his criminal activities, incites jealousy between his multiple wives and lovers.

The underlying message of the show is political, cast members said. It’s a commentary on the lower class getting punished while the crimes of the upper class go unnoticed.

But audience members don’t just watch the musical – they are forced to engage with the actors. Junior Tyler Morris, who plays a beggar and Crookfinger Jake, said the intent is to keep the audience from forming an emotional connection and missing the core message of the play. Brecht wanted his audiences to stay intellectually engaged.

“You are aware you are seeing a play,” Morris said.

Throughout the show, actors sing or shout into audience members’ faces, join them in the seats and hold stern eye contact to the point of discomfort.

“We interact with the audience by basically staring them down,” said senior Melissa Briggs – who plays Lucy Brown, one of Mac’s lovers – with a laugh.

The goal is to promote thought over emotion, said junior Eddie Neve, who plays another leading character, Mr. Peachum, whose business is training professional beggars.

The show is done with a lot of ensemble work, cast members said, and the musical numbers are presented in a way that points out the absurdity of breaking into song. During the show, song titles and pictures are occasionally displayed on projection screens high above the stage.

Riverside Theatre is an ideal location for “Threepenny Opera,” Sadeghpour said. The small and intimate setting allows for easy audience contact. Actors also take advantage of all the entrances and exits available in Riverside, even using platforms on the sides of

the theater.

“It’s just the perfect theater for that show,” Sadeghpour said.

Fog drifts in and out during the performance, adding to the cool and contemptuous atmosphere of the show. Very few props are used – instead, the actors use strong body movements to fill the stage.

Sadeghpour’s job, she said, is to rehearse and direct the pit orchestra in addition to helping the cast with the music preparation and guiding them in interpretation of their songs and their characters.

“(I help them) find ways to use their voice to express what it is they want their character to express,” she said.

The most famous piece in the show is “Mac the Knife,” a jazz standard performed by artists like Frank Sinatra.

“(The music) is as loud and brassy as the message is,” Neve said, adding that the complementary choreography is “sexual and violent.”

Junior Kaysee Schmidt, who worked on the costume design for the show, said the attire is inspired by a high-fashion, runway look with lots of layers while still keeping with the period tone. Skimpy black lace and tight corsets barely cover some characters’ bodies, while other women – Mrs. Peachum, played by senior Caitlin Nelson, in particular – are decked out in tulle, furs and ridiculously large hats. Stilettos and cleavage abound, adding to the show’s sultry tone.

The leading men, such as Mac and Mr. Peachum, sport pimp-ish suits that are tattered around the edges, in Peachum’s case. Mac looks the part of a perfect dandy, in a flashy black vest and dark glasses, complete with an ivory-topped cane. Other characters dress in rags or dapper police outfits, as the parts require.

The cast members have also done a great job of developing their characters, Sadeghpour said. With so many famous interpretations of this show already in existence, she said the unique developments done by such young actors are commendable.

“The students have really … dug deep and … just created these really interesting, really deep characters which has been really great to see,” she said.

The cast and crew said they are excited for opening night and sharing “Threepenny Opera” with the campus.

“The audience should come open-minded,” Krueger said; when asked what students should expect, adding it isn’t a comedy, though it has some comedic moments.

Goltz, whose character keeps the plot going by taking on several roles throughout the story, said the audience should come to experience – rather than just watch -the Threepenny Opera.

“It’s not like anything seen on our university stage before,” agreed Briggs.

Director Terry Allen declined to comment for this story.