It's been a long time since the last major American revival of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera. (We will draw a veil over the short-lived 1989 Broadway revival starring Sting.) Therefore, it's doubly notable that San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre's (ACT) recent Threepenny Opera was not only a critical and popular success, but was also, in many ways, unique.
For openers, the production began before the overture, with Jenny (Bebe Neuwirth) appearing in front of the curtain to sing the "Ballad of Mack the Knife" (usually performed by the Street Singer). The curtain then rose to reveal Annie Smart's unit setting, an old San Francisco opera house, which had been destroyed by the 1906 earthquake. Furthermore, Michael Feingold's translation was amended to include references to various local spots, linking San Francisco with the blend of Victorian London and Weimar Germany envisioned by Brecht.
In terms of its design, this production also broke away from the received wisdom of Brechtian stagings, which tend toward sneering actors and lots of harsh white light. Not that things couldn't have gone that way: The production's LD, Peter Maradudin, admits, "If I were to typecast myself, it would be as a white-light designer. I'm a big fan of what no-color can do." However, he notes, director Carey Perloff had a different vision: "Carey felt it would be a terrible mistake to approach this too cynically--that's the way Brecht is often perceived, or misperceived. To her, this material has a tremendous life force. The score has great love duets, with beautiful music. She wanted that to be part of the visual world as well."
Taking his cue from Smart's use of neon signs, Maradudin gave The Threepenny Opera a neon-noir sheen, an alluringly sinister approach that aimed to seduce rather than alienate the audience (pictured). "Instead of tons of white, open, revealing light, it's very sculptural," he says. "The colors are neon oranges, magentas, purples, and greens. Carey did a tremendous amount of research into Brecht; one thing she discovered was that he created his theories about performance relative to whatever show he had just written. There really isn't a Brechtian approach; if you say that it's got to be very obvious, baldly theatrical--well, I don't know that that's true."
To create the look of The Threepenny Opera on a spare budget, Maradudin turned to Morpheus Lights, hoping for adonation of S Fader color changers. To the LD's surprise and pleasure, Jim Gordon of Morpheus offered FaderBeam automated wash luminaires as well. "I used the moving fixtures as a backlight system," he says, "and sometimes as moving specials. I set up the S Faders in groups; they were on box booms, with another group focused on the set. Each S Fader has three scrolls in it--magenta, yellow, and cyan. I could set magenta at 50%, cyan at full, and get a beautiful blue wash on the wall." At other times, he used the moving units like a camera, moving them subtly to draw the audience's eye to certain performers or locations.
Also, with the Morpheus units, Maradudin was free to use color to give each scene a distinct look. For example, he says, "There's a tango with Mack and Jenny"--during "The Pimp's Ballad"--"that takes place in the kitchen of the whorehouse. There's laundry strung all over everything. I used magentas and oranges in the scene--they were picked up by all the white laundry, with Bebe and Philip Casnoff dancing in the middle. It was quite gorgeous."
Maradudin used the Obsession from ETC to control the show; the bulk of the show's conventional units were also from ETC. Smart also designed the show's costumes; sound design was by Garth Hemphill. The Threepenny Opera ran through October 10.