MIDDLEBURY — In 1928, on the cusp of one of the greatest economic crises in history, German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht sat down to adapt John Gay’s “The Beggar’s Opera” for a theater in Berlin. The piece was a 19th century satire of Italian opera that offered a socialist critique of what both playwrights considered the pervasive corruption of capitalism at all levels of society.
As Brecht — already a famed satirist — worked, he continued to find parallels between the Victorian social ills that Gay satirized and those of 1920s Germany.
“He kept altering it to fit the context of his times,” said Bettina Matthias, chair of the German Department at Middlebury College.
The result was “The Threepenny Opera,” one of Brecht’s more popular masterpieces and one of the most frequently performed operas of the 20th century. This week, the Middlebury Community Players will perform it at the Town Hall Theater. Matthias directs a 17-person cast, including Matthew Winston as Macheath, David Harcourt and Sarah Stone as Mr. and Mrs. Peachum, Mimi Bain as Polly Peachum, and Kevin Commins as Tiger Brown.
The story sets Mr. Peachum, head of an “army” of professional beggars whom he exploits systematically, against Captain Macheath — alias “Mack the Knife,” also the name of the opera’s most famous song — leader of a group of gangsters who pillage the homes of London’s wealthy at night. Neither Peachum nor Macheath still need to get their hands dirty since they have mastered the art of delegating crime, but their rivalry becomes unpleasant when Peachum’s daughter Polly decides to marry the charismatic Macheath. Such a transgression of property laws needs punishment, Peachum decides, and he mobilizes every connection he has to have his undesired son-in-law caught and hanged.
“The play is very intricate,” Matthias said. “It has these layers of time and history. And to me, it is also about our times, how the wealthy win and people in the lower and middle rungs of society can’t really get back on their feet … It’s a play that rings true today.”
And “The Threepenny Opera” hasn’t been performed more than 10,000 times since its opening in 1928 just because of its long political shelf life. It is also an entertaining, exciting musical with jazz and 1920s-era music underscoring the action.
“I’ve done it twice at the college,” Matthias said, explaining that it was performed in its original German — the Town Hall Theater performances are in English. “But of course, your reach is limited (in Addison County) when it is performed in German. So we are very excited to perform in the community. It is a fun play with a great message, and it is very different than American musical theater.”
Brecht’s operas differ from American musicals, where characters bursting into song drive central plot points and character exposition. Brecht was a leader of the “epic theater” movement, which resists both melodrama and naturalism. The goal of epic theater was to make the audience aware of itself so those in attendance would not become lost in the fictitious reality of the play’s action or overly compassionate toward the characters.
Brecht, who popularized epic theater, developed a variety of techniques to achieve that end, Matthias said. One of those techniques that she employed in this production is to make singing an artificial feeling act. The players make song a distinct break from the play’s action, instead of pretending, like they would in an American musical, that bursting into song was a perfectly normal act within the reality created on the stage.
“He really wants the audience to understand that it’s artificial, it’s not real life.” Matthias said.
The production is a collaboration between Addison County residents and three Middlebury College exchange students.
“It’s a real town-gown effort,” said Matthias. “For me, this theater experience with the community has been such a great thing.”
“The Threepenny Opera” will be performed Thursday to Saturday, April 25-27, at 8 p.m. with matinees on Saturday and Sunday, April 27 and 28, at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theater in Middlebury. Tickets can be purchased by calling 382-9222 or online at www.townhalltheater.org.