The characters of “The Threepenny Opera” might already be familiar to you. The lead, Macheath, is the subject of that classic toe-tapper “The Ballad of Mack the Knife.” Plus, the show has been around in various forms since Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht wrote it in 1928, and even their version was an adaptation of John Gay’s 1728 work “The Beggar’s Opera.” And now, Signature Theatre’s production includes an unseen character whose wedding we all watched.
The version of “The Threepenny Opera” that director Matthew Gardiner chose to present was written in 1994 and takes place immediately before the imagined coronation of Prince William (the original script places the story in the days before the coronation of Queen Victoria). So it’s in the future, but not so far that there will be flying cars and warp drives. The setting, Gardiner says, lets the musical’s modern viewers access a very old — if still relevant — story.
“It allows the audience to not be removed, to look at it and say, ‘Oh, this has nothing to do with me; this is some other place and some other time,” Gardiner says. “I mean, we haven’t relocated it to Washington, D.C. — it’s still in London — but there is this sense of now in it.”
In fact, there’s a greater “sense of now” than there was when this adaptation first came out, he says. “It feels even more relevant now that the queen is 20 years older and it seems like this could happen any day.” (Once Charles gets out of the way, of course.)
While the plot of “Threepenny” centers around Macheath, a London criminal, the theme is what has endured — namely, an indictment of a corrupt ruling class that behaves like criminals but somehow manages to get away with it.
“Certainly Brecht was writing it from a very socialist perspective,” Gardiner says. “That’s not necessarily the perspective I take. The perspective I take is the society that we have created promotes and glorifies wealth and greed and celebrity.”
It’s a tricky line to walk, Gardiner says; an audience that paid up to $80 a seat isn’t there for a talking-to.
“I see the story not so much as an accusation, but a question — asking yourself how you operate, as opposed to going ‘you all are doing something wrong,’ ” Gardiner says. “My goal is not to attack, not to alienate the audience, not to make them feel I’m pointing the finger at them. I’m pointing the finger at all of us.”
There are dozens of versions of “The Threepenny Opera,” and that’s only counting the ones in English. The first Broadway version premiered in 1952. The 1976 version by Ralph Manheim and John Willett is considered the standard; it earned Raul Julia a Tony nomination for his portrayal of Macheath. The version at Signature is typically called the Donmar Warehouse, after the London theater where it had its premiere (it was written by Jeremy Sams).
Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington; through June 1, $40-$80; 703-820-9771.