Augustana College is presenting “The Threepenny Opera” tonight, and Saturday and Sunday at Brunner Theatre Center, 3750 7th Ave., Rock Island.

Book and lyrics are by Bertolt Brecht and Elisabeth Hauptmann, music by Kurt Weill, and the play with music is directed by Shelley Cooper.

AJ Weber, left, as Tiger Brown, Mukupa Lungu as Narrator, and Benedict Wood as Macheath in the new “Threepenny Opera” production.

Set in the impoverished back alleys of Victorian London, “The Threepenny Opera” follows underworld antihero Mack the Knife as he tries to woo Polly Peachum and elude authorities. Created in 1928 Berlin to speak out against capitalist corruption, this musical bluntly addresses issues that remain relevant today, according to Cooper. 

“In ‘The Threepenny Opera,’ Brecht argues that a capitalist system drives people to do anything to make money,” Cooper said recently. “They steal, kill, and sell their bodies, and none of these actions is out of the ordinary. These activities will arise naturally because the characters live in a system that rewards ruthless competition.

Jacqueline Isaacson as Jenny Diver and Benedict Wood as Macheath in the Augie production.

“The past two years have forced us to have some difficult conversations about accountability, economic injustice, inequality for women, inequities for the LGBTQ+ communities, racism, corporate greed, privilege, and more,” the director said. “I think, if we don’t address these important conversations head on, we will be doing a grave disservice, and the same stories will keep being told.”

Cooper is leading this one Berlin story as a prologue to another classic musical, set shortly after in the same city — “Cabaret,” which she’ll direct next fall, in November. For her, “Cabaret” wouldn’t exist without “Threepenny Opera.”

“Threepenny” was penned in the 1920s as a “cautionary tale, warning people of what was gonna happen with Nazi Germany,” she said. “It is a socialist commentary on a capitalist world gone wrong.”

Alyssa Frazier as Mrs. Peachum and Ezekiel Aurelius as Mr. Peachum.

“They were starting to predict that something bad was gonna happen,” Cooper said. “They’re talking about how to lie, cheat, steal and kill to get ahead in life. The lead character is a horrible, horrible human being. There really isn’t a good person on that stage.”

Cooper became obsessed with “Threepenny” during COVID, after she was cast in a Hawaii production that was cancelled twice (in 2020 and 2021).

“I did lots of research on it; I’ve always loved Kurt Weill, since grad school,” she said. “I think he’s great.”

Shelley Cooper is assistant professor of theatre arts at Augustana in Rock Island.

Influenced by the racial, social justice and economic upheavals of the past two years, she also “wanted to do something with a lot of substance. I didn’t want to direct a fluff piece – I wanted to direct something I could really sink my teeth into.”

In “Threepenny,” there is a lot of sexism, classicism, and economic disparity, Cooper said.

Performances will be 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 1:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are available HERE.