Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
A Noise Within’s Threepenny Opera: Brecht but with a twist
by Frances Baum Nicholson
One of the signature elements of the entire arts movement in 1920s Berlin is “The Threepenny Opera,” a reworking of John Gay’s 18th century “The Beggar’s Opera” by German greats Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. Stark, unrealistic by design, and seated in an essential socialist view of a harshly capitalist society, its jazzy, sometimes atonal songs and scruffy collection of anti-heroes poke a finger at all the conventions of society, theater and popular storytelling.
Now at A Noise Within in Pasadena, “The Threepenny Opera” melds the essential concepts of Brechtian theatrical production with the theatrical traditions of ANW’s artistic, and production, co-directors Julia Rodriguez-Elliot and Geoff Elliott with significant success. There are still some issues to be resolved, particularly as they relate to sound, and it is possible that Brecht purists will be frustrated by ANW’s tradition of cartoonish/clownish additions, and a significant amount of editing, but as a piece of theater it stands up.
The tale is of Macheath, or Mack the Knife, who has married Polly, the daughter of the scruffy Peachums, who operate a business making money out of organizing the beggars of the city. Furious over the marriage, they try to turn Macheath in to the police, thwarted by the fact the Chief of Police is Macheath’s old army comrade Tiger Brown. Eventually Macheath is arrested, then set free by another of his women, then rearrested when he can’t stay away from his favorite brothel, and finally saved by a completely ridiculous deus-ex-machina underscoring the ridiculousness of happy endings (a Brecht hallmark).
Andrew Ableson is that very balance of soullessness and grimy good looks as Macheath. Marisa Duchowny sings particularly well, and has perhaps the funniest (if also the most scatological) moment as the deflowered Polly. Geoff Elliott and most particularly Deborah Strang make the Peachums impressively unlikable, and yet humorously dark. Jeremy Rabb gives Tiger that manipulatable quality so necessary to be a crime lord’s dupe, while Maegan McConnell, as Tiger’s daughter, and Stasha Surdyke, as Jenny Diver, the prostitute who was once Mack’s central lover, offer up memorable portraits of those carried away by, or done with Mack’s inability to control his desires.
Costumer Angela Balogh Calin has created costumes based on an essential, sometimes clownish miscellany, yet thrashed and dirty about the edges, with only Macheath briefly accorded a truly dapper look. Frederica Nascimento’s set – made heavily from bits of scaffolding and ladders – holds fairly true to the Brechtian ideal of minimalism and labels.
Indeed, the only problem (and it is essential) with this production as a piece of theater has to do with sound. The jazz band which accompanies the show is good, but in a space made mostly of concrete it is also loud. On several occasions it threatens to drown out the actors, whose mics are not all set at a strong enough level to overcome the music. Articulation is also a problem. For example, one can hear every word Strang sings, but many of the lyrics sung by the small chorus of ruffians, or by individual characters including Macheath himself, get lost as much due to diction as to being overwhelmed by music. This is a problem because the lyrics advance the storyline and enhance the characters. To not hear, and understand, them is to be lost in the plot.
Fortunately this is very solvable. That’s good because the rest of this is certainly impressive. One rarely gets to see a fully staged production of “The Threepenny Opera,” yet it has much to say about greed and inequity which is just as relevant as ever. For those to whom this matters, it is also impressively raw and fairly scatological, and is most definitely not a musical to bring younger children to.
“The Threepenny Opera” is the first of three productions which will play in repertory at ANW this spring. The next, “Figaro”, opens on March 7, followed at the end of the month by “Julius Caesar.”
What: “The Threepenny Opera” When: in repertory through May 17, 8 p.m. March 12, April 3, 11, 24 and 25, and May 9 and 16; 7 p.m. March 15 and May 3, 7:30 p.m. April 2 and 23, with 2 p.m. matinees on March 15, April 12 and 18, May 2, 9 and 17 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $40 general, $20 student rush. Group prices available. Info: (626) 356-3100 ex 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org