Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

The Threepenny Opera and Carrie

Liz Filios, Victoria Frings, and Terence Archie
Photo: Mark Garvin
The Threepenny Opera is an audacious work full of pessimism, one in which, as one character sings, "life is tedious and gloomy." It's both sad and appropriate that the Arden's production of Threepenny is, well, tedious and gloomy. Director Terrence J. Nolen's production affects a tone of hip cynicism that feels forced. The best productions of Threepenny can be fascinating, but this one becomes unpleasant to watch.

Using a 1994 translation of Bertolt Brecht's 1928 script and lyrics (the script was translated by Robert MacDonald, the lyrics by Jeremy Sams), the Arden's Threepenny sets its tone right away with "The Flick Knife Song (Moritat)," the song that Americans know best (from Marc Blitzstein's translation) as "Mack the Knife." "He's a sadist, he's a rapist," warns the singer, and things don't get sunnier from there. That was Brecht's point, but this version wallows in the crime boss Macheath's debauchery without illuminating it. One character states that "the world is such a dreary and dire place," and that's typical of a text that is determined to tell us what to think rather than let the audience come to its own conclusion. Sams' lyrics are gracelessly direct; the act one finale has been retitled "Life's a Bitch"—which, come to think of it, would be a good title for the play as a whole.

Part of what has always redeemed Threepenny is its satire of a greedy capitalist state, best typified by Peachum, the "king of the beggars" who extorts money from the beggars under his control. But Nolen's production makes its parallels to our modern era too obvious. Peachum controls a video screen that displays his beggars' slogans—and the slogans include jabs at both President Obama and the Tea Party movement. Too often, it seems like what we're seeing is less the real Threepenny than a radical reinterpretation of it to suit the director's vision. (There's even a reference to the Arden Theatre in the finale, which I doubt you'll find in the original German.)

Fortunately, Kurt Weill's insidious and insinuating music is well-served here by an eight-piece orchestra led by Eric Ebbenga. The singing is never less than excellent, and the act two "Jealousy Duet" between sopranos Victoria Frings and Liz Filios, as Macheath's two competing wives, is stunning. Scott Greer plays Peachum with just the right amount of bluster, while Mary Martello scores as his wife, and Anthony Lawton adds some nice comic touches as the hapless police chief Tiger Brown. As Macheath, Terence Archie looks tough, but he never dominates any of his scenes; how could he dominate the London underworld?

The show is blessed by the Arden's usual first-rate production values, including Tom Gleeson's sprawling multilevel set, Rosemarie E. McKelvey's wide range of costumes, and Jorge Cousineau's clever use of projections.

Despite all the talent on display, the Arden's version of The Threepenny Opera is a missed opportunity that leaves a sour taste behind. It's easy to respect, but hard to like.

The Threepenny Opera runs through November 7, 2010, at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street. Ticket prices range from $29 to $48, with discounts available for students, seniors, military, educators and children, and may be purchased by calling the box office at 215-922-1122, online at, or in person at the box office.

Bradley K. Wrenn and Erik Ransom
Photo: Fig Tree Photography
Carrie is playwright Erik Jackson's adaptation of the Stephen King novel, an adaptation that is heavily influenced by Brian DePalma's 1976 movie version. Carrie is a bullied teen who gets the ultimate revenge against her tormentors; King's novel is a mixture of sensitive scenes and preposterous ones. But it's the movie that people remember, and it's Piper Laurie's over-the-top performance as the heroine's religious fanatic mother that has made Carrie ripe for parody. Thus, Jackson's Carrie is a comedy in which the title character is played by a hulking man in drag (Erik Ransom).

Carrie is the sort of comedy that thinks that anything associated with dated 1970s styles, such as a leisure suit or a Peter Frampton song, is automatically funny. Those obvious gags wear out their welcome pretty quickly, though, and most of the punch lines in the script fall flat. Michael Alltop's direction has lots of stagnant moments; the many scene changes don't always flow smoothly, and the first act ends awkwardly. A big disco dance number, staged by choreographer Karen Getz, takes place in a high school gym class, and consists mostly of floor exercises; it's hard to see what's going on if you're not in the first few rows.

Ransom's wide-eyed performance as Carrie adds surprisingly little to the comedy. Yet there are a lot of good, committed performances, including Bethany Ditnes as the school's bad girl, Mariel Rosati as the good girl, and Bradley K. Wrenn as the conceited big man on campus.

Carrie runs through November 7, 2010, and is presented by Brat Productions at Underground Arts at the Wolf Building, 340 North 12th Street (at Callowhill Street). Ticket prices range from $15 to $29, and are available by calling the box office at 888-283-1428, or online at The show is recommended for ages 13 and up.

-- Tim Dunleavy

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