To infuse new life into an old, familiar work, you start by going backward, searching inside the work for the initial impulses that created it. Contrariwise, to guarantee that it stays dead and that its familiarity breeds only contempt, you start from conventional expectations of its end result—or, even more unhelpfully, from conventional recollections of the later works it influenced—to produce an inert, dim replica of something that looks like something that resembles something that somebody else did long ago. Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill created Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) in 1928; it’s a measure of the work’s inherent strength that a few moments of it managed to survive Robert Wilson’s production with the Berliner Ensemble, seen at BAM for mercifully few performances last week.
Although the installation-like works of his creative years, long since past, employ live performers and move through time, Wilson has never really had any interest in the theater. He actively seems to disapprove of the theatrical impulse and even to resent its continued existence. Least of all, engaged as he has been in a world of wealthy backers, museums, and foundations, has he ever had any interest in theater with the kind of social-activist impulses that partially fueled the creation of Threepenny. Premiered before Brecht became a communist, the work is not actively political as many of his later works are, though he tried to make it so in subsequent rewritings. It was meant as provocative entertainment for middle-class theatergoers—part satire, part shock effects, part aesthetic innovation, part moral indictment, and part sheer theatrical diversion. Audiences worldwide have relished the unexpected, heady mixture ever since.
Wilson carefully removed all these aspects of the piece, turning Brecht and Weill’s middle-class wake-up call into dead entertainment for rich people. His gelid staging and pallid, quasi-abstract recollections of Expressionist-era design suggested that the writers might have been trying to perpetrate an artsified remake of Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret. Still, the bite of Brecht’s words and the gutsiness of Weill’s catchier tunes sometimes bested him, though the music was trashily handled, and, in general, rottenly sung. Some of the vocal muck ups might have come from the Ensemble’s method: Its actors seemed capable and knowing, snatching eagerly at the brief moments of life allowed them. Too few such moments came to save the evening from Wilson’s embalming fluid; much of the middle class, sensibly, fled at intermission.