Bad to Brecht, Vile to Weill

On the surface, Threepenny Opera seems a perfect choice for Infernal Bridegroom Productions, which recently opened the show at Atomic Cafe, a new performance space in the warehouse district downtown.

Bertolt Brecht's wonderfully sardonic and somewhat didactic musical, scored by Kurt Weill, deals with questions of class and money, and features the devastatingly charming thief and whoremonger Macheath, commonly known as Mac the Knife. Brecht uses Macheath's elopement with the daughter of a beggar king to explore the values of the underworld -- and posits the idea that those values are very much like those of conventional powers such as the police and even the queen. It's a terrific, if very long, musical (three and a half hours, with two intermissions), full of surprise, hilarious irony and moments of absolute brilliance.

And it ought to be a nifty match for this homeless theater troupe, which has made its name by performing similarly smart, difficult pieces in Houston bars, buses and dilapidated shopping malls -- on the very margins of society, where Brecht's characters could feel at home. And I.B.P.'s populist $9.99 ticket prices, and its desire to bring non-theatergoers into the theater, fit nicely with the playwright's Marxist notions about money, power and art. But unfortunately, the company is overwhelmed.

Up until now, I.B.P.'s main strength has been its willingness to take risks, but in this production, the group takes almost none. Just look at the cast: Sarah Mitchell, Tamarie Cooper, Jim Parsons (one of the troupe's most talented actors), Troy Shultze and even the unnamed whores and gang members are all doing variations on the surprisingly similar characters they played in I.B.P.'s production of Camino Real. I kept wishing director Jason Nodler had taken some risks in his casting, that he'd found some fresh faces or at least had given his actors roles they would not find so familiar and comfortable. I wished that Mitchell were not yet another sexy wench, and that Cooper were not once again playing a tired, ironic middle-aged woman. Most all the actors seemed to be going through a series of moves they know much too well and do much too easily. The performances lacked creative energy and focus.

Additionally, many of these actors simply can't sing. Threepenny Opera is, as its name implies, a musical, and Brecht's libretto has to be one of the funniest and smartest groups of songs ever penned. Hearing so many of these tunes abused by so many weak voices was at first frustrating; after a couple of hours, it became almost unbearable. (One of the few bright moments in the music came when Charlie Scott sang a sweet line of music a cappella.) William Harris's dirge-slow musical direction only made matters worse.

There are other problems, too. The small, conventional proscenium stage at Atomic Cafe does not serve this show well. The actors were much too static, having almost nowhere to go. The orchestra, stuffed into a small playing area down front, creaked through most of the music. Even Nodler's direction, which is often imaginative and energetic, was unfocused and plodding. The actors either ran about the stage with all the willy-nilly energy of headless chickens or they stood in contrived poses that were either bewildering or simply boring.

Infernal Bridegroom has many laurels on which to rest, but unfortunately, they were not enough to support the weight of such a fine piece of writing.

Threepenny Opera plays through March 28 at the Atomic Cafe, 1320 Nance. For more info, call 522-8443.

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Lee Williams