Signature Theatre delivers classic yet harsh criticism of capitalism

Signature Theatre delivers classic yet harsh criticism of capitalism

By Jordan Wright (Photo/Margot Schulman)

Is capitalism as prone to corruption and evil today as when Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill penned “The Threepenny Opera” in 1920s Germany?

Given that Signature Theatre adopted playwright Robert David MacDonald’s and lyricist Jeremy Sams’ 1994 modernization of the original musical for its retelling of the classic, they certainly must believe Brecht and Weill’s concerns are alive and well. Citing a Pew Research Center report from December 2013 that shows income inequality is at its highest since 1928, Signature’s artistic director Eric Schaeffer proves the play’s theme timeless.

Does the slogan “we are the 99 percent” ring any bells?

The story is set in a dystopian future where England’s Prince William is about to be crowned King William V (theatergoers are treated to a flower-strewn memorial to the current queen surrounded by the lurid headlines reporting her death on tabloid front pages). Director Matthew Gardiner plunges us into the chaos of the streets, a place where Misha Kachman’s evocative set design includes a neon sign advertising “instant cash,” and graffiti covered alleyways. Sound designer Lane Elms also deserves praise for recreating the cacophony of a major city.

It is a gritty world where prostitutes, strippers, conmen and beggars are positioned at stage level while slick-suited financiers stroll on an elevated catwalk, looking down on the hoi polloi beneath an electronic ticker-scroll with the stock prices of the day. The dichotomy between the haves and have-nots rings clear as the bell announcing the opening of business on the floor of the London Stock Exchange.

Natascia Diaz plays the prostitute Jenny, with an ennui that chills. She opens with a mournful solo, describing her lover, Macheath, who is a low-down murderer. It is an eerie and halting tune.

Later, we meet Mr. Peachum (Bobby Smith), a shakedown artist. He describes “the five basic varieties of human wretchedness” in “Morning Chorale:” “the beggar, the banker, the cop — they’re all of ‘em out on the take.” Meanwhile, he hands out crutches, fake limbs and tattered clothing to his beggars.

Mrs. Peachum (Donna Migliaccio), his cohort in crime, aids in marring the garments with scissors while their daughter, sweet Polly, (Erin Driscoll) takes it all in. But is anyone more evil than the Machiavellian Macheath (Mitchell Jarvis) who, as quick as he slits a throat with his shiny shiv, marries the headstrong Polly before his band of thieves?

Costume designer Frank Labovitz has adopted an arresting display of colors, patterns and styles to depict the criminal lifestyle. Using what is known as the chav style of clothing adopted by Britain’s anti-social youth subculture, Labovitz has Mack’s gang of thieves sporting a mashup of designer clothing, bling, Burberry caps and the latest in cell phones. The hookers, led by Jenny, rock 6-inch stilettos, 12-inch tall hairdos and fabulously racy lingerie. Polly, by contrast, is a vision in a yellow Scottish plaid suit and beribboned hose.

The production uses a variety of techniques to suggest the insidiousness of our technology overload. Lighting designer Colin K. Bills and video designer Rocco 
DiSanti effect quick mood changes by infusing scenes with Brechtian philosophy, flashing platitudes across an electronic board above the fray. Phrases like, “Depart from evil and do good,” and “Seek peace, and pursue it,” represent Brecht’s exhortation to his characters to beware of dehumanization through immorality. DiSanti’s atmospheric lighting succeeds in heightening the tension and the chilling ferocity of the scenes.

There are too many eye-popping scenes and too much phenomenal singing to describe here, but watch for Rick Hammerly as Lucy Brown, who shows up to challenge Polly for Mack’s affections. Hammerly nearly brings the house down with his drag performance as the pregnant Brown. Then there’s Mack’s descent into madness in “The Ballad in Which Macheath Begs All Men’s Forgiveness.”

Jarvis gives us a psychopathic yet charismatic Mack — the personification of evil and raw sexuality in a character as powerful, riveting and cringe-worthy as Satan himself. For Jarvis, who effortlessly alternates between charm and depravity, it is a soul-searing triumph.

“The Threepenny Opera” runs through June 1 at Signature Theatre at 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. For tickets and information call 703-820-9771 or visit