10/07/2011 05:21 pm ET | Updated Dec 07, 2011

'The Threepenny Opera': BAM Presents Robert Wilson's Glittering Nihilist Romp

If you've never seen "The Threepenny Opera" before, its hilarity may surprise you. While the general maxim holds that life is bad and people worse, you may as well languish in style.

"It's art, it's not nice," a character says at one point to his new bride in the Berliner Ensemble's staging of "The Threepenny Opera" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. With its sparkling costumes and hallucinatory staging, you sort of understand what he means: It's not enough for this kind of show just to be pretty -- it has to disgust you, too.

It does. This is a circus that is no less horrifying for being beautiful.

"The Threepenny Opera," by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, premiered in 1928 as a musical comedy that has come to be regarded as a masterpiece over the years. The story of lowlife master Macheath; new bride Polly Peachum; her father, the king of the beggars; Chief of Police Tiger Brown and the rest of the scummy London underground seems like melodramatic farce at first, but reveals itself in the end to be a kind of nihilist joke. Under the direction of Robert Wilson and performed in German with English subtitles, this production is simultaneously hilarious and chilling. Despite the show's history, it's hard to imagine it staged any better than it is at BAM.

Wilson's version differs in that it has more to say about contemporary society than about history, and it delights in the parallels. One lowlife, asked to sing a song, launches into Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance." Later, Mac appears in the whorehouse dressed like a Wall Street kingpin, throwing cash in the air. He knows that by indulging in his love of women, he'll probably end up in jail -- but he goes anyway. If you can't do what you want to do in a world where pleasure's hard to come by, why not just die anyway?

Towards the end of the show, when Mac begins ranting about the evils of the big corporation and the banker, many people in the audience cheered, perhaps thinking of the Occupy Wall Street protests happening not so far away.

These characters look as if they've been lifted directly out of "Glitter and Doom," a recent Metropolitan Museum exhibit of Weimar-era portraits: Their faces are painted white and black, their expressions drawn on so they look like dead dolls, their clothes black, glamorous and shapely.

They move like dolls, too. Wilson is famed for his use of posed body movements, but in "The Threepenny Opera," these movements are mechanical rather than elegant. The figures trip like marionettes across the stage. Everyone speaks in a shriek, a groan or a gurgle, as if speech had been separated out into those primal noises used only to communicate the basest emotions.

With just line and light, Wilson manages to choreograph his visuals so that both minor, ominous shifts in mood and sudden bursts of humor are synchronized with the sets. Figures have their white faces lit against pure darkness, or are turned entirely to silhouettes against the scrim. A series of spectacular scene changes are punctuated by characters singing directly in front of a black curtain.

Despite the lack of clutter onstage, numerous actions are suggested through exaggerated sound effects. A beggar pours his change into the pocket of another, as the sound of jangling money rings out for minutes. A rap on a door -- or a head -- is a sharp, loud bang.

The finale could be read as a pointed jab at the schmaltz of the Hollywood ending. The queen's messenger, wearing a massive red cloak, delivers Mac from his execution, raises him to a lord, awards him a pension and gifts him a castle. Everything is bad, and then everything is good again. That's how it works, at least in the theater.

'The Threepenny Opera' at BAM