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THEATER REVIEW: "The Threepenny Opera" has a bite at UCSD

The joke at the time “The Threepenny Opera” was taking Berlin by storm went like this: “Who wrote it?” “Brecht.” “All right. Who wrote it?”

Bertolt Brecht’s game-changing 1928 social satire lifted copious amounts from its source material – John Gay’s “The Beggar’s Opera,” written exactly 200 years earlier. And translations of poems by François Villon and Rudyard Kipling, which he used as lyrics for Kurt Weill’s incomparable music. Even the most famous line (“Food comes first, and then morality”) was borrowed from Friedrich Schiller.

It’s amazing the show debuted on time at all. Actors had to be substituted days before opening, parts cut, music excluded and Brecht wrote the finale while the cast was in rehearsal – and the famous “Ballad of Mack the Knife” was tacked on at the end of the process. And after all that, the opening night audience sat in stony silence during the first act.

But the bitter “Cannon Song” brought applause with its recurring line (“A soldier’s married to the gun he carries”) and chorus: “John is missing and Jimmy is dead/And Georgie was shot for looting/And young men's blood goes on being red/While the Army just goes on recruiting.” By the time the show was over, Brecht and Weill had the biggest hit of the ’20s on their hands.

Now UCSD’s Department of Theatre and Dance offers a biting production of the Brecht/Weill classic through Feb. 5 at the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre.

On and around Ian Wallace’s enormous three-level jungle gym-like set stretching the entire width of the stage area, Brecht’s thieves, beggars and harlots ply their respective trades in a London slum. The time is 1838 and Queen Victoria is about to be crowned. London is jammed with onlookers.

The denizens of Soho are ready. Jonathan Peachum (Zachary Martens) heads a group of beggars whom he costumes with sympathy-inducing debilities (and pockets 70% of their take); Jenny Diver (Anne Stella) runs a brothel; master criminal Macheath (Zachary Harrison), aka Mack the Knife, roams the area, taking what and whom he wants.

Chief cop Tiger Brown (Mark Christine) is in Mack’s corner, thanks to generous kickbacks.

As the show opens, Peachum’s daughter Polly (Taylor Shurte) – who can’t resist a bad boy – has met and casually agreed to marry Mack the Knife – in a stable, mind you, decorated with a faux Persian rug, furniture and dinnerware conveniently appropriated by Mack’s henchmen.

After all, these are economically difficult and ethically slippery times, and people do what they must to survive. If that means betraying a trust, so be it, as Mack himself will soon find out.

Third-year MFA student Jeffrey Wienckowski’s sure-handed direction keeps it all under control.

Production values are high. Elisa Bezoni’s costumes are terrific, lighting by Sarah Cogan, David Corsello’s sound design excellent, and Ian Wallace’s projections update the by-now universal themes with photos of familiar faces from our time.

“The Threepenny Opera” was unusual for its choice of characters – the lower class, used to satirize the Weimar bourgeoisie – but what gave it staying power was Weill’s angular, sometimes atonal, often angry-sounding music, said to be an attack on Wagnerian opera.

Music director Mark Danisovszky, Heidi Wienckowski and an uncredited guitarist provide the orchestral accompaniment.

This cast does not offer any outstanding voices, but all get their words out and points across, and Street Singer Regan Linton holds the entire show together with her fine musical narration. And all are fine actors.

Hurry – the show closes Saturday.

The details

UCSD Theatre’s production of “The Threepenny Opera” plays through February 5, 2011 at the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre.

Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m.; matinee Saturday at 2 p.m.

For tickets, call (858) 534-4574 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.