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The Threepenny Opera

Also see Sharon's review of Indoor/Outdoor

After Open Fist Theatre Company’s experiment with the Robert David MacDonald and Jeremy Sams translation of The Threepenny Opera, the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble goes back to basics with the Marc Blitzstein translation of the Brecht/Weill classic, the translation which was such a success Off-Broadway in the 1950s.

The Odyssey’s production has a somewhat non-traditional opening. Audience members are kept in the theatre’s lobby until curtain time, whereupon, without warning, the Streetsinger appears on a balcony and begins singing “The Ballad of Mack the Knife.” (There is no adaptation credit other than Blitzstein, but the lyrics here are not his, unless he wrote an alternate version.) With the actors sharing the space with the audience, the song attempts to surprise and engage, but it comes at too great a cost. After the song, the audience must then be escorted into the theatre and all seated in assigned seats - it takes quite a bit of time and kills any theatrical feeling of otherworldliness that may have been created by the opening in the lobby, especially since the audience members start having random conversations while waiting for the play to begin. (Similarly, some unfunny audience interaction bits have been added to cover the set changes, and sometimes go on longer than the set changes they are meant to cover. Nothing would be lost by deleting the bits and just having the pianist play a little incidental music.)

The production takes place in what the program calls “A Brechtian ‘No Man’s Land’ somewhere between Victorian London and Berlin of the ’20’s.” The actors all wear whiteface, and nowhere is this used to better effect than on Paul Dillon, as Macheath. Dillon’s short-cropped hair blends with his white makeup to create the appearance of a skull. That he is dressed (by costume designer Gelareh Khalioun) sharply in a tuxedo when he first appears only adds to the image - Dillon’s Macheath looks like Death. Macheath carries a cane (in his kid gloves) which he can smash down with crushing authority. He doesn’t cut an elegant figure, but he has an undeniable presence. When Lucy Brown later sings about how she fell for him although he never made her feel like “a lady,” you can certainly see how this is the guy she’s talking about.

Macheath’s new young bride, Polly Peachum, is played by Gabrielle Wagner. Although the entire company essays English accents to some degree (except Martha Gehman, whose Jenny is German), Wagner’s Polly drops her “H”s in an accent that seems out of character for someone of her class. But Wagner’s accent is easy to overlook when she sings; she has a strong, clear voice and a solid delivery.

The rest of the company is mixed. Robert Machray (who alternates in the role with Alan Blumenfeld) plays Mr. Peachum as a pragmatic cynic who inspires respect and fear in the beggars who work for him. Jacque Lynn Colton is miscast as his wife, frequently attempting to sing out of her range and sometimes missing notes badly. Greg Mullavey plays the police commissioner, Tiger Brown, and his first act duet of the “Army Song” with Macheath is one of the production’s highlights, sung with a bloodthirsty glee on the part of both men. The song is also one of two places in the show where director Ron Sossi inserts a pause just long enough for the audience to realize that Brecht might have been saying something that resonates with modern audiences.

Sossi’s production, in general, is not played for laughs. Of course, Macheath’s band of second-rate criminals muck things up to humorous effect (their whiteface makes them look like clowns, as it should), but everyone else aims for some level of truth. The one exception is Christina Purcell as Lucy Brown, Macheath’s former lover. Wearing frizzy, out-of-control hair, and sporting a huge flower on her dress, Purcell’s Lucy is all about comic anger. She sings “Barbara Song” as a comedy - physically tossing another actor into a backward roll in order to act out her dismissal of a suitor. I found the choice to be a disappointing one. Sossi staged “Barbara Song” in such a way that Macheath is present when she sings it. This gives Lucy a terrific opportunity to direct the song’s last line (“And now, it’s you can tell me ‘Sorry’”) to Macheath, in what could be a devastating acceptance of her fate. But this Lucy is played for laughs, Purcell points at the audience on the last line, and any portrait of Lucy as the sadder but wiser girl is left on the drawing board.

Directing songs to the audience is a deliberate choice of this production, probably in the same way that the audience is directly engaged in the set changes and “The Ballad of Mack the Knife.” And it works, to some degree. Polly sings “Polly’s Song” almost as a music hall number. Jenny sings “Pirate Jenny” directly to the audience as though we’re privy to her secret thoughts. (Gehman’s vocal interpretation is good, but she over-emotes with wide eyes and uplifted arms.) And yet, all of this involvement of the audience makes the numbers in which Brecht’s intention was to speak directly to the audience, such as “How to Survive,” less powerful, because the fourth wall has already been breached.

Overall, it’s a decent production. It serves to put the piece across, and would definitely be a fine introduction to Threepenny Opera for someone unfamiliar with the work. But it is neither uniformly excellent enough nor inventive enough to be noteworthy for established fans of the show.

The Threepenny Opera runs at the Odyssey Theatre through November 6, 2005. For reservations and information, see www.odysseytheatre.com.

Odyssey Theatre Ensemble - Artistic Director Ron Sossi - presents The Threepenny Opera. Book and lyrics by Bertolt Brecht; music by Kurt Weill; English adaptation by Marc Blitzstein. Directed by Ron Sossi; Musical Director Jan Powell; Produced by Ron Sossi & Beth Hogan; Assistant Director Rebecca Chiyoko Itow; Associate Producer George Christopoulos; Set Designer Travis Gale Lewis; Lighting Designer Derrick McDaniel; Costume Designer Gelareh Khalioun; Choreographer Georgia Simon; Makeup Artist Apryl M. Douglas; Stage Manager Katt Masterson; Graphic Artist Fred Baxter.

Cast:
Filch/Streetsinger - Alan Abelew*
Mr. Peachum - Alan Blumenfeld*
Betty - June Carryl*
Mrs. Peachum - Jacque Lynn Colton*
Readymoney Matt - Heath Corson
Macheath - Paul Dillon
Molly - Alison Frazier
Jenny - Martha Gehman*
Coaxer - Julia Max
Dolly - Alison Lees-Taylor*
Bob the Saw/Smith - Robert Andrew Libby
Crookfinger Jake - Brad C. Light*
Mr. Peachum - Robert Machray
Tiger Brown - Greg Mullavey*
Walt Dreary/Constable - John Neisler*
Lucy - Christina Purcell*
Polly - Gabrielle Wagner*

*Appearing at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble Through the courtesy of Actors Equity Association.


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Sharon Perlmutter






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