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In Less Than Rent's new show, wild comedy masks a dark American secret
The script for John Presson and Sean Patrick Monahan's Little Mac, Little Mac, You're the Very Man! boasts the following subtitle: "Based on John Gay's The Beggar's Opera and Bertolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera, and also not really based on either of them at all." Considering that the finished product features Macheath alongside Bugs Bunny, Ronald Reagan, and Taylor Swift, that's an understatement.
The references don't end there. "It's a little bit of Candide and Gulliver's Travels," says Presson, who's mounting the play with his theatre company Less Than Rent, which specializes in so-called "caffeinated remixes" to classics.
"We try to stay away from things that are clean updates, or just switching the setting or something like that," he explains. "We're way more interested in taking that source material, riffing, and having fun from there."
In the show, playing through April 27 at the Kraine Theater, Little Mac (née Macheath) is a cowboy who's chased out of town by Peachum for marrying his daughter Lucy. This leads him on a journey through American history, where he encounters icons like Jay Gatsby, Lucille Ball, and even Old MacDonald (who not only had a farm, but also is little Mac's grandfather).
The production features music by Alexander Sage Oyen, and the pre-show contains live performances of Taylor Swift songs. "Why not Taylor Swift?" Presson deadpans. "We just thought this happy little blonde girl with the great voice would be the perfect 'Ain't that America' figure."
If the plot sounds vaguely nonsensical, that's okay. "I was sitting in the middle of the audience last night," says Presson, discussing the first preview. "[The woman] sitting behind me, she was laughing the whole time. And halfway through, when Bugs Bunny came out, she said, 'I cannot with this show.'"
He chuckles at the memory, but the non-sequiturs do have a purpose. "Having this Communist plot between Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny: It's stupid, but it's intentionally stupid," Presson says. "If it's all logical, it doesn't work, because then you start trying to follow the plot in a very logistical way. That is by far the least enjoyable version of watching it."
He says it's easier just to go along with Little Mac on his long journey, watching him transform his name and occupation over and over again. He becomes an entrepreneur (creating a golden-arched fast-food chain), a mobster, and a politician, all in the name of making money. It's the ultimate story of American reinvention.
Yet like The Beggar's Opera and The Threepenny Opera, the levity masks a darker tone. Just ask Tom Sanchez, a Less Than Rent company member who plays Little Mac. "One of James' main points is there's no way to succeed," he says. "Mac has tried everything he can think of to make it in this world, and he has yet to make money in a way that is not illegal or doesn't hurt anybody."
Still, Little Mac is the hero of the story. Just like the original Macheath, we can cheer him on despite his lack of a moral compass.
"At the end of the day, isn't money what everybody wants?" Sanchez asks. "You can't help but root for Little Mac. He's just trying to do what we're all trying to do, which is to succeed. Deep down, you want him to succeed, because you want yourself to succeed."
The Kraine, where Less Than Rent performs, is part of Horse Trade Theater Group. A few months ago, they were featured in our Meet the Theatre film series:
Diep Tran is a writer and editor based in New York City
Photo by Bruce Fuller