The Threepenny Opera
As the crowd milled about outside the Redfield Proscenium Theatre waiting for the doors to open, a gaggle of bums suddenly appeared begging alms. These weren’t everyday bums but special theatrical beggars with more makeup than a bum could normally afford. I dropped a quarter into the cup of a woman beggar with frazzled hair and an eye patch over one eye. “If I could see God, I would think it was you,” she said. Later, after we had been seated, these same vagrants surrounded the audience and demanded that everyone turn off their cell phones.
The Threepenny Opera, written by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill and first performed in Germany in the late 1920s, is a gleefully lowbrow subversion of traditional opera. The characters are all beggars, thieves, crooked cops and whores. It’s set in the impoverished underworld of Victorian London, and the story centers on the philandering criminal Mack the Knife (played here by Ryan Bobbett) and the varieties of trouble he gets into. The play alternates between songs and scenes of dialogue like an American musical, but it has a far more satirical and quasi-political tone.
It’s as known for its music as anything else. The opening song, “Mack the Knife,” is a pop and jazz standard, having been covered by everyone from Paul Anka to Nick Cave, though the most well-known version of the song is Bobby Darin’s hit take. It’s sung by the play’s occasional narrator, a nameless street singer played here by Domenic Procaccini II. He does the song credit, though with his white makeup, black lipstick and spiky black hair, he looks more like a Rocky Horror reject than a crooner.
The distinctive music, heavy with dissonance and syncopation, is performed by a small group conducted by Damon Stevens and given a relatively sedate treatment. This keeps the focus on the onstage action, but I couldn’t help wish for more ruckus renditions.
There’s a similar problem with the play’s humor. The play itself is quite funny and full of sharp satire and sexual innuendo, but much of this was lost. I blame this partly on the audience—the play is confrontational and bawdy, and it didn’t go over well in a house full of polite bourgeoisie. But it’s still the performers’ responsibility to convey the humor with wit and timing, and many of the play’s best lines were rushed.
There are a few good laughs. Mack’s Act Two prison break is well choreographed, with funny pantomimes from the other jailbirds. The slinky Jenny (Sarah Potts) and the haughty Mrs. Peachum (Kimberlee A. Pechnik) both have some good moments. The graceless thugs of Mack’s gang also make for a comical chorus line during the “Army Song.”
The standout performance of the play is Hana Freeman as Polly Peachum, Mack’s new bride. She delivers her dialogue as a convincing wide-eyed bimbo, and she vamps saucily and sings expressively during her songs. The “Jealousy Duet,” a catfight between Polly and Lucy, one of Mack’s other women, is probably the best number.
Bobbett does a passable Mack and sings well but lacks the dangerous charisma of a suave and notorious criminal. The costumes were annoying—self-consciously theatrical and ill-fitting, it was difficult to tell the bums apart from anyone else. There were some cumbersome attempts to connect to current events and, with three lengthy acts, the play feels long.
Still, despite some kinks, the material is strong enough to sustain interest. During the performance’s better moments, like the crowded stage of the entire scowling ensemble growling at the audience at the end of Act One, it’s hard not to enjoy the spirit of the rabble being thoroughly roused.