RETRO REVIEW: What Keeps a Musical Alive? 7 Stages Feeds Audiences a Dark, Fresh Take on THREEPENNY OPERA

Posted on: Sep 16th, 2016 By:
The wedding of Mackie (Aaron Strand) and Polly Peachum (Stephanie Lloyd) with cinematic insert of Mack's trio of cohorts (Jed Drummond, Tad Cameron and Evan Hynes) showcasing the all-stolen posh furniture. Credit: Stungun Photography.

The wedding of Macheath (Aaron Strand) and Polly Peachum (Stephanie Lloyd) with cinematic insert of Mack’s trio of cohorts (Jed Drummond, Tad Cameron and Evan Hynes) Credit: Stungun Photography.

THE THREEPENNY OPERA; directed by Michael Haverty and Bryan Mercer; Play by Bertolt Brecht; Music by Kurt Weill and translated from German by Marc Blitzstein; Starring Aaron Strand, Stephanie Lloyd, Kevin Stillwell, Don Finney. 7 Stages. Sept. 9-25, 2016 (EXTENDED TO OCT. 2!). Tickets here.

Atlanta doesn’t have the theatrical reputation of many comparable American cities, but with THE THREEPENNY OPERA (Sept. 9-25), 7 Stages proves once again that this city can and does produce innovative, provocative performances of the sort one expects to see Off-Broadway. This production, envisioned and co-directed by Michael Haverty and Bryan Mercer, is quite simply a must-see if you like Brecht and Weill, value drama that provokes, disturbs, and makes you laugh like Hell, and/or don’t believe Atlanta produces theater at the level of New York.

Set in working class Victorian London, THREEPENNY tells the cautionary tale of MacHeath, aka “Mack the Knife,” a brutal but charming thief and murderer, as well as the many women who love him. The rest of the cast of characters include beggars, criminals, whores, and corrupt police officers. First performed in Berlin in 1928, it was Brecht’s attempt to adapt and update John Gay’s 18th century BEGGAR’S OPERA into a socialist satire of both the profit motive and the mode of musical theater itself right down to a perhaps (or perhaps not) unexpected ending.

From the moment Nicolette Emanuelle (read our Kool Kat of the Week interview with her here) emerges, dressed almost only in an accordion, and belts out the eponymous song, “Mack the Knife” in deep, guttural tones, the visceral, unrelenting tone is set. Let’s say definitively that this ain’t Bobby Darin’s homogenized hit. One can’t help but be reminded of CABARET though that was written much later,. The comparison is appropriate given that while the setting is London, Brecht conceived THREEPENNY in Weimar Germany with a jazz-influenced soundtrack. And thanks to subversive drama such as THREEPENNY, in 1933, Brecht and Weill would have to flee their home country in the wake of Hitler’s rise to power.

Polly Peachum (Stephanie Lloyd) and Macheath (Aaron Strand). Credit: Stungun Photography.

Polly Peachum (Stephanie Lloyd) and Macheath (Aaron Strand). Credit: Stungun Photography.

This THREEPENNY shows more spunk and further establishes its 1920s setting, along with embracing Brecht’s expressionistic theory of theater, by mimicking silent film at various points, including a cast titles segment at the beginning. The characters parade live in front of a period-consistent unsteady camera with the resulting black-and-white footage projected onto the rear stage wall. THREEPENNY works better with a minimalist set and lower production values (vis-a-vis the abject failure of the big-budget 1989 Broadway revival with Sting which I unfortunately saw but mercifully remember nothing about). In this case, the camera is used a number of times during the show not only to compensate for a limited budget but also to enhance the theatrical experience in creative ways. I won’t divulge the details so as not to spoiler.

While the cast was consistently strong in the preview performance I saw, several actors stood out. THREEPENNY can be made or broken by who plays Mack the Knife. I can say thankfully that Aaron Strand is no Sting. And don’t be fooled by his pretty face. Strand takes the role of bastard by the balls and rides it all the way unabashedly, from displaying a full grasp of the nuances of the play’s dark and biting humor to enthusiastically embracing Mack’s raw sexuality, even endowing a rock n roll edge at points that makes the role feel contemporary without compromising Brecht’s vision. Brecht never wants us to empathize with his characters, but we need to sense Mackie’s extreme charisma despite his inherent sociopathy. The directors have admitted  tossing a nod towards this year’s presidential race, and it’s hard not to see some parallels in a man who can say or do anything and still be loved by many. “What keeps a man alive? He lives on others.” Indeed.

Also memorable are Mr. JJ Peachum (Kevin Stillwell) and especially his wife, played in drag by Don Finney. The Peachums run a lucrative and, to them anyway, respectable business training professional beggars and taking a share of their earnings. If Mackie is a capitalist, the Peachums could be community organizers of sorts especially when later in the play they assemble an army of beggars to disrupt the queen’s coronation. They aren’t pleased at all when their daughter Polly abandons the family business to marry Mackie and take it upon themselves to get him arrested and hanged. Stillwell is an earnest Mr. Peachum who hits all the ironic humor of his character, but Finney is a show-stealer–effusive, maternal, dominant, and absolutely hilarious. In other hands perhaps placing a man in the role would simply be a gag, but Finney sets fire to the stage and easily matches Mack as a formidable adversary.

Mrs. Peachum (Don Finney). Credit: Stungun Photography.

Mrs. Peachum (Don Finney). Credit: Stungun Photography.

For all the darkness in THREEPENNY, as noted, Brecht injected a lot of humor. A special nod should also go to Adam Lowe, who plays not only the clumsy Filch, who applies to Peachum and needs some serious education in begging, but also Tiger Brown, the esteemed police chief of London. Tiger and Mackie served together in the military, and Tiger has been, at least thus far, protecting Mackie from arrest. Their boisterous nudge-nudge-wink-wink rendition of “Army Song” is a show highlight. A call-out should also go for slapstick mastery by Mackie’s trio of henchmen–Readymoney Matt (Jed Drummond) who reminded me in voice, if not hair, of VENTURE BROTHERS’ Pete White, Crookfinger Jake (Tad Cameron), and Bob the Saw (Evan Hynes).

Among the ladies in the cast, Stephanie Lloyd is an appropriately pretty and savvy Polly Peachum, madly in love with Mackie and to whom he leaves the control of his shady business when on the run from the law. The production makes an interesting choice by having her, rather than Jenny the prostitute and Mackie’s original lover, sing “Pirate Jenny” (perhaps the play’s second best known song), a change which I am uncertain about maybe because Lloyd’s voice hits a much higher pitch than the deep-throated Lotte Lenya (composer Kurt Weill’s wife), who played Jenny in both the 1931 German film adaptation and the 1954 Off-Broadway revival which debuted Mark Blitzstein’s translation of Weill’s lyrics, the best-known translation also used in this production. However, casting Dorothy V. Bell-Polk, who resembles Grace Jones, as Jenny is an intriguing surprise. And Jessica De Maria brings the right balance of passion and disgust to Tiger Brown’s daughter Lucy, Mackie’s other “wife” who is considerably less dainty. (As a side note for those who don’t know, a young Bea Arthur played Lucy in the 1954 rendition and Lucy was played by a man, Brian Charles Rooney, in the 2006 Broadway revival which toyed with Mackie’s sexuality and featured Alan Cumming as Mack and Cyndi Lauper as Jenny).

A big hand should also go to DeeDee Chmielewski, 7 Stages’ longtime costume designer, for her monochromatic black and white designs which blend well with the expressionist cinema ambiance,, as well as the simple props and sets designed to maximum effect by Melisa DuBois, and lighting design by Rebecca M.K Makus. And of course, the band. As with 7 Stages’ DRACULA, THE ROCK OPERA (Read ATLRetro’s review here), the musicians are onstage but woven seamlessly into the action. In sum, 7 Stages shows yet again how to maximize a parsimonious assemblage of performers, with my only possible regret being that there weren’t more beggars to march on the coronation.

Move fast and don’t miss this THREEPENNY because while the characters may be perennially stuck in their low societal positions, Atlanta theater runs are always short. As with DRACULA, one wishes this production could hang around for a while and build an audience. 

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Kool Kats of the Week: A Romance by Design: Artists Caryn Grossman and Chris Buxbaum Collaborate in Life and at MODA

Posted on: Dec 7th, 2012 By:

Chris Buxbaum and Caryn Grossman.

By Torchy Taboo
Contributing Writer

Have you ever known two people from utterly separate times and places in your life, and then one day you learn that your worlds collided and they have become a couple, and it’s one of those rare “aha” moments? It happened right before my eyes. Caryn Grossman and Chris Buxbaum are two wonderfully creative and fascinating people. Then suddenly BANG! They are collaborating on an installation as part of “The South’s Next Wave: Design Challenge” at the Museum of Design Atlanta (MODA). The special exhibit  began November 11, 2012 and runs though March 31, 2013

The sum of Caryn’s and Chris’ creative energy is formidable, making them the perfect candidates for Kool Kats of the Week. So I took the opportunity to chat with them about their dynamic cross-pollination

Torchy Taboo/ATLRetro: Chris, when I first met you, you were a DJ with an amazing record collection and a lifelong David Bowie fan. Is there a fave Bowie period? How have his styles influenced you creatively?

Chris: If pushed, I would say my favorite period was the “Berlin Era” (Low/Heroes/The Idiot/Lust for Life) – all that angst and faded glamor. Other than the “lost decade” (most of the ’80s), I love all Bowie’s work. The fact that it varies wildly in sound and vision is what attracts me to it. And never sticking to one look or genre – borrowing like a magpie from a wild variety of sources, both high and low art, is the most important thing I took away from it.

I see Glam-rock influences in the MODA installation….

Chris: Everything I did as a young fashionista in London (glam/early punk/ club kid/fetish pioneer) informs what I do now – an obsession with androgyny and fluid identity being the main thing that carried into this project. The photos in the installation, from a yearlong collaboration with supermodel David Richardson, are actually from another project that is nearing completion called “Schizophrenic Photogenic.” We are in talks with some galleries with a view to presenting these early next year.

You’ve both been shop keepers and lived the retail life. Thoughts on that?

Caryn: I think we both really miss it – I know I do. There’s something about the hunt for a fantastic mix of things, and then watching and interacting as people come through. We’re about to open a little retail space in Paris on Ponce, and I can easily see it growing into something more.

Chris: What I learned from being a shopkeeper is that while I am very good at creating a “look” and an atmosphere, I am no business man.

Chris and Caryn's installation "Darkly Deeply Beautifully Blue" at MODA's South's Next Wave exhibition.

Chris, when did photography become part of your picture?

Chris: I have always carried a camera since i was a teen, but originally just to document what I was doing. It stemmed from having such a bad memory – just so I could remember where I had been. I only started getting “arty” about it when I had my Gallery “Boho Luxe.” The advent of digital really freed me up to experiment and learn -not so much for the ease of manipulation, but because you could now afford to make lots of mistakes and learn by trial and error, which is the only way for me. I don’t think I have ever read an instruction manual in my life. Meeting Caryn was the final ingredient. She pushes me to achieve and then is wonderful in helping me collate and publicize the work. She really is the magical final ingredient.

Caryn, tell us a little about how cross-pollinating your fantastic interior design skills with Chris’s photography. Talk to me about the mixing of your styles.

Caryn: On a job, there’s actually this wonderful synergistic flow; we both have an eye for color, shape and form, so the projects we do for our clients come together really easily – and beautifully. As far as a personal style, I love a sense of irony in design, a surprise tucked around a corner. It’s really evident in the MODA installation, and pretty much the same here at home.

My space is always a reflection of how I feel, and when I met Chris I was in a very melancholy, introspective kind of place. The loft I was living and working in really reflected that – lots of soft tones and heavy drapes to envelop me. Some things were overly lush, others were worn by time, but overall the space had a very soothing vibe, which was exactly what I needed it to be. I’d had a number of artists come through, so there was a lot of graffiti on the walls, so I think the sense of color and joy was there, it was just tucked away a bit more.

When Chris and I moved into our first loft together, the space was quite a bit smaller, and things had to condense. All of a sudden the graffiti wall was center-stage and Chris’ leopard bar was kind of integral to the mix. We still have a pretty soft surround, with the heavy drapes, but the space is much livelier, much more colorful, and much more in keeping with the boldness of Chris’ photos. I love it – it’s a happy space, really filled with a lot of laughter and love.

Caryn and David Richardson at MODA's opening night party.

I know that you are both versed in the organizing of unique events. It’s apparent that projects like this huge MODA event are second nature for you as a couple.

Chris: Before I discovered photography as an art form, I would say that putting together events, club nights, parties was my only talent – it’s like cooking – you have to have the right balance of ingredients and a pinch of magic. Caryn moved in very different circles from me, and she has a knack for publicity and finessing the right people. She can really write, and she has the education, technical skills and connections to make crazy ideas become reality. “Darkly Deeply Beautifully Blue” was a true collaboration in every sense of the word. We worked shoulder to shoulder for five months to make that happen. Then we called in all our amazingly talented friends to make it real:  Milford Earl Thomas to make the film, Timo Evon and James Hoback for their artisan skills.

Caryn: I’ve always believed a collaborative process is the best, so even when I was working alone I always had other artists in and out of the space. Sometimes we shared the space and produced events together, sometimes it was just me inviting an artist in to show or play. It always brought me joy, and I loved seeing the creative process of others. It’s what makes my own work thrive, so producing events just came naturally. For a number of years I did it quarterly, opening my space up for all kinds of works, and all kinds of people, and I know my own creativity grew exponentially.

Happy Blue Family Chris Buxbaum, Caryn Grossman and Henry Jack Buxbaum!

What exactly is the MODA event?

Caryn: The exhibit, called “The South’s Next Wave,” is actually a design contest:  each design group chose or was assigned a color (ours was blue) and then assigned an object.  Ours was cake.  The only directive the curators gave was to design a monochromatic setting for the object. I envisioned ours as a room.

I thought it’d be great for Chris and I to do the space together. Chris had the idea to have a silent film made so that the “set” would remain animated after the opening. The film was shot on black and white 8 mm with a handheld camera and then tinted blue, frame by frame.

There were actually three openings: one for the press, one black-tie for wealthy patrons, and then the grand opening night.  The first two were so serious we decided to go all out on the third night and have David in the space as Marie Antoinette.  People loved it – they went nuts!  The event was sold out.

And how did you get involved?

Caryn: Sixteen designers from across the Southeast were chosen by the curators, Tim Hobby and David Goodrowe of a firm called Goodrowe/Hobby.  They had put out a call for entries for the object designers, so I approached Tim Hobby and asked him how the set designers were going to be chosen. I knew Tim from some design work we had done together years ago. He said the designers were going to be individually selected based on innovative style and merit – I presented him with some of my more recent work, and we were in.

David Bowie and a young Chris Buxbaum.

Give us more of the juicy details and logistics about the MODA installation.

Caryn: Creating the space for MODA was an amazing process. I had a vision of something over-the-top, kind of an ironic play on Marie Antoinette, and Chris’ photos were just a natural fit. Glam, punk, drag and my vision for design all came together almost seamlessly. Chris’ work and aesthetic was the perfect irony and surprise I was looking for, and the rest of the project kind of rolled on from there. I’ll let Chris tell most of this one, as once the vision came together, he really took it that step further by assembling this amazing team that ultimately included a filmmaker, drag performer, artistic finisher, Chris’ photos of course, and some pretty over-the-top furnishings and these unbelievable cakes by a company called Couture Cakes Inc. The museum crowd went nuts over it, especially the second opening night, which was the night we had our own Marie Antoinette – all seven-plus feet of him in platform heels, in the space.

I guess MODA is the perfect example of how our styles mix, and how we work together. I’m hoping it’s the start of a lot of great things.

Chris: “Darkly Deeply Beautifully Blue” came together really organically. We went with blue because we were in the middle of a big project for CG CreativeInteriors [Caryn’s interior design firm]. When we have a project, we cover the walls of the loft in paint chips, fabric samples, inspiring pictures, etc, so we literally have to look at it all day. Since we were loving the colors we had chosen for this residential project, we decided to pull them over into the MODA one. We decided to use my pics of David Richardson to pull it out of being just decorative and give it an edge (and also to get them a wider audience). When we learned that our featured product was to be high-end designer cakes, the Marie Antoinette theme seemed the obvious way to go. Caryn worked tirelessly to find fantastic furniture and architectural products – the floor alone took almost a month to sort out [and] our first two ideas (mirrorball tiles/glitter wall paper) would not come together. In the end she sourced 40,000 silver rose petals. We drained six whole wedding stores of their supplies.

Tell me more about your crew selection and how they fit together.

Chris: The final thing that helped separate us from the pack was having David in the vignette live on opening night. It’s hard to ignore seven-and-a-half feet of drag queen with a Marie Antoinette wig and a birdcage on her head. And the cake maker, Lisa Humphreys, of Couture Cakes Inc.,  did an amazing job – even those shoes are cake.

We were also very honored to have Milford Earl Thomas (CLAIRE: A SILENT MOVIE) make a short film for us also featuring David. It turned out so beautifully and was designed to hold the viewers’ attention when David himself was not in the installation. I would love to work with him again in the future.

Caryn Grossman.

Share your vision of the future five or 10 years from now.

Chris: Vision for the future: an April wedding on the rooftop of the Telephone Factory, a solo gallery show for “Schizophrenic Photogenic” early 2013;  a group show with Rose Riot at Cherrylion and, last but not least, to grow CG Creative into a flourishing modern design firm.

Caryn: Wow. I have no idea, expect I know it will include the two of us, and some amazing intriguing happenings going on. I can easily see what we created at MODA taking on a life of its own. Whatever it is, and wherever we’ll be, I’m sure it will be fascinating – and happy.

Visitors to MODA get to vote on their favorite vignette and object. Chris and Caryn’s installation, “Darkly Deeply Beautifully Blue” is #6. The voting ends February 15.  Each vignette is set up with the Skovr app, so that viewers can access facts and video about the designers while in the galleries or from home.  More info on the museum hours, etc., can be found at www.museumofdesign.org.

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