Culture » Performing Arts

Seedy scoundrels

The Threepenny Opera shines light into the shadows

So bad, and yet so good: (clockwise from top left) Erin - Bell, Tim Welch, Judith Shay Burns and Susan Carson.
  • So bad, and yet so good: (clockwise from top left) Erin Bell, Tim Welch, Judith Shay Burns and Susan Carson.

Seedy scoundrels Sadist, rapist and murderer Mack the Knife, ruler of the London underworld, enters the last chapter of his notorious career and pays the price for his crimes.

Or will he? Whether the scoundrel gets his just desserts becomes less clear as The Threepenny Opera progresses. What does elucidate is that more than one scoundrel deserves punishment.

Corruption, vice and the hypocrisy of the middle class interact in a morality play cast as a mock opera. In collaboration with Opera Theatre of the Rockies, UCCS TheatreWorks presents a lively performance of Bertolt Brecht's masterpiece.

Set in early 20th-century London, dastardly Macheath, aka Mack the Knife (Tim Welch), heads a successful crime network, thanks in part to the protection he receives from old army buddy and London Chief of Police Tiger Brown.

Mack secretly marries Polly, the daughter of archenemy King of the Beggars, Jonathan Peachum. Enraged, Peachum blackmails Brown into arresting Mack, who gains additional momentum when Brown finds out his daughter, Lucy, is carrying Mack's child.

The darkness and conflicting moralities of the show are foreshadowed as the spectators enter the auditorium. We see a bare stage dimly illuminated by a lone light, serving more to emphasize the stark setting and its shadowy corners.

The players enter, assemble the set, then move straight into the play's most famous song, "The Ballad of Mack the Knife."

The musical numbers give Brecht's cutting lyrics a power they may lack in spoken dialogue. Some tremendous operatic voices belt the songs with gusto, and listening to stories of murder and rape told within moving arias is surprising.

The female performers steal the show, especially Mack's sparring lovers Polly (Judith Shay Burns) and Lucy (Erin Bell), who sparkle in an exhilarating operatic catfight. Susan Carson injects heart into an otherwise less-than-honorable Jenny Diver, who rats out Mack for a symbolic 30 shillings. Crossing and double-crossing are the orders of the day in this immoral world.

Brecht first ushered The Threepenny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper) to the Berlin stage in 1928. A reinterpretation of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1728), Brecht presented the work as a critique of Germany's Weimar Republic and its obsession with business and money to the detriment of human feelings and needs.

The drama does not try to suck in spectators, but rather creates a sense of detachment through jarring plot changes, actors walking to the front of the stage to break into song and beautiful-sounding ballads containing harsh, ugly lyrics.

"The importance of this detachment is to create a space for the spectators to reflect on the themes explored," says producing director Drew Martorella.

Whether Brecht was a realist or a cynical pessimist is a question for the audience. You may not like what goes on in his shadowy world, but it's hard to escape the unadulterated humanity the play exposes and the irony of Brecht's observations.

Consider a comment Peachum makes in Act 3: "The law was made for one thing alone, for the exploitation of those who don't understand it or are prevented by naked misery from obeying it."

Brecht's critique is as relevant today as it was in the 1920s, and TheatreWorks' performers have a lot of fun shining light into some pretty nasty shadows.

-- Wayne Young


The Threepenny Opera

Dusty Loo Bon Vivant Theater, 3955 Cragwood Drive

Shows through May 8; Thursdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday matinees, 2:30 p.m.; Sundays, 4 p.m

Tickets: $18 - $20, call 262-3232 or

see for more info.

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