By Patrick Hurley
Bertolt Brecht’s sweeping critique of capitalism, The Threepenny Opera gets a beautiful staging at A Noise Within. Based on John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, and boasting music from composer Kurt Weill, the play explores a socialist criticism of capitalist ideals, morality, and corruption in a way only Epic Theater, or more specifically, Bertolt Brecht can.
Set in Victorian England, the play follows an anti-hero known as Macheath/ Mack the Knife (Andrew Ableson), a man known for his hedonistic carousing, brutal killings, and general criminal masterminding. Macheath marries Polly Peachum (Marisa Duchowny), much to the chagrin of her father, Jonathon Peachum (Geoff Elliott), who makes his living through the exploitation of the beggars of London. Together with his wife, Mrs. Peachum (Deborah Strang), he sets out to have Macheath captured by local authorities and finally, at long last hanged for his crimes. This is harder than it seems. It turns out Macheath is old friends with the chief of police, Tiger Brown (Jeremy Rabb). Nevertheless, he is ultimately captured. What ensues is his arrest, imprisonment, and impending death. During all of which, his wife Polly comes to learn the truth about who her husband really is, and who he may also be married to. There are secret deals made, bribery and cunning, and in a rather strange turn of events, a happy ending. If you can call the victory of the villain turned repentant anti-hero a happy ending, then yes, that’s what you get. In all honesty, it’s just a Deus ex Machina in the guise of a formulaic comedy ending. All’s well that end’s well? Perhaps, but the overall criticism of society throughout the play leads one to take more from this ending than just a nice, tidy summation. It could be seen as a statement on the harshness of life, and a call for greater humanity.
This production succeeds in many ways. The gorgeous scenic design by Frederica Nascimento wonderfully submerges us in a highly stylized, overtly theatrical realm. Angela Balogh Calin’s magnificent costume design, and Ken Booth’s lighting all combine to create an atmosphere of high theater. The look of this production successfully captures the Brechtian ideal of showing the artificiality of the medium.
Likewise, the cast is a great success in this production. It’s a large ensemble, and everyone dives into the material with great enthusiasm. Standouts include Marisa Duchowny, who finds a corrupted sweetness to her Polly. She is at once innocent and volatile. Deborah Strang gets the most out of her Mrs. Peachum. Of all the characters, she is the only one that truly pulls the audience into her world. She does this with her proximity to the audience, but also through a heightened awareness. She plays out to the audience more than anyone else, and though it is somewhat hammy, it is engaging. Geoff Elliott is solid as Jonathon Peachum. Stasha Surdyke and Maegan McConnell as Jenny Diver and Lucy Brown each have their moments to shine, and Abubakr Ali as Crook-Fingered Jack perfectly embodies the physicality and demeanor of a typical era-appropriate ruffian.
Where this production suffers is in the musical numbers. They lack real momentum. Most of the songs are anti-climactic in nature as it is, therefore the staging of them should be used to breathe more life into them, and this doesn’t happen. In fact, it’s the opposite. The music actually deflates dramatic tension, so much so that, most of the time, songs culminate with a smattering of applause instead of a rousing cheer. Perhaps a choreographer would have been beneficial. And while these are not big stagey musical numbers the likes of which you’d find in a Broadway musical, there is no reason to have people sitting down for an entire song. This is an issue that doesn’t diminish the entire show. And in fact, every one of the actors is a good enough singer to pull off most of the songs. That, and the production value alone makes this production a worthy viewing. However, it feels as if a large opportunity was missed here musically.
Directors Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott are competent enough with the material. They create a theatrical experience walking a Brechtian line of distinction, but a little too reserved to cross it fully. There is a sense of inclusion on the part of the audience, though maybe not enough. The mechanisms of theater can be seen, though perhaps they could be seen more. There were some partial blackouts, and that felt antithetical to Epic Theater. However, for the most part, this production is a success. It’s just shy of being a rousing, exciting one.
The Threepenny Opera
By Bertolt Brecht
A Noise Within
3352 East Foothills Blvd. Pasadena, CA 91107
626.356.3100 ex 1
Student Rush is available for $20 with ID; Available one hour before performance.