There’s a certain irony in producing The Threepenny Opera in shining Shirlington. Signature has chosen to present one of the great polemics against human degradation in a community fastidiously designed to minimize it’s residents exposure to the underclass. This presents a golden artistic and social opportunity for the talented team Signature has gathered under the direction of Matthew Gardiner.
I was excited and hopeful that Gardiner and company would deliver something passionate and thrilling. I was looking for social satire with real bite, especially after being so enthralled by Gardiner’s vicious, sexy work on Tender Napalm, still playing just down the Signature hall.
So why then does this Threepenny seem so tame?
Brecht and Weill’s bleak masterpiece has been updated in Jeremy Sams and Robert David Macdonald’s translation to a just-around-the-corner future England poised to celebrate the coronation of much-beloved King William. (The real one. You know, Elizabeth’s II’s grandkid that just had a baby?) The design team has looked to contemporary UK fashion and art for inspiration. Misha Kachman’s Union Jack floor-based set is festooned with Banksy nods. Stock tickers speed by on large screen televisions.
Legendarily fearsome criminal Macheath himself (Mitchell Jarvis) is all decked out in tattoos and a swank suit, and his gang of thugs all rock chav style and sporting the latest phones. The working class taking on what symbols of the rich they can afford. And the prostitutes? The ultimate expression of an oppressed underclass? They all look titillatingly great. This is a problem. In a show meant to focus on the plight of the poor, everybody in this Threepenny is looking pretty all right.
For instance, in one key scene, noted misery pimp Mr. Peachum (a game, needling, Bobby Smith) shows off the various costumes he and his wife have designed for the beggars of the city, each meant to evoke extremes of human pity, but the ensuring catwalk fashion show looks more like the fantasy high-fashion of the Hunger Games Capitol. Shouldn’t they be looking a bit more District 12? I appreciate costume designer Frank Labovitz’s attempt at satire, but I fear he’s hit the the wrong target.
Stylistic choices like the costume parade reveal a conflict between the production’s aesthetics and text that Gardiner never quite overcomes, as all the technology and spectacle threaten to overwhelm the humanity. Of course, he and his team are working with a high level of difficulty. Brecht and Weill’s material and its presentation were truly shocking and paradigm-shifting in 1928. But in 2014? Maybe we’re all just a little too desensitized. We live in an era of 24-hour plane-crash coverage and Hannibal Lecter chowing down in primetime. Riling people up with this material today requires a precise balance of grotesquerie and viciousness without tipping into cartoonishness or worse, misery porn. But mostly, it requires the conviction to risk offense.
But this Threepenny too often sticks to safe choices, hinting at a revolutionary desire without really committing to being dangerous, perhaps rightly believing that delivering the material generally straight and with the requisite Signature polish and spectacle would be enough.
But this seeming fear of offense leads to a lack of passion, heat and stakes. Jarvis, for instance, has a fantastic voice and his delivery on Weill’s songs is great. But his Macheath lacks a certain viciousness. He’s got the charm and the looks, but I didn’t feel the threat, so well evoked by the nice bit of faux-news coverage played for the audience as they enter the space.
This Mac the Knife is more social climbing cad than killer, his shining e-cig completing the effect. Symbols of the oppressive system like a corrupt police force and a drunken priest all come across a bit too personable and reasonable.
Credit the ladies of the cast for giving Threepenny most of its verve. Sad-eyed Natascia Diaz provides the most of pathos and passion (and the night’s best pipes) as conflicted prostitute Jenny, whose old love for Macheath burns in conflict with a desire for vengeance and a need to survive.
THE THREEPENNY OPERA
Closes June 1
4200 Campbell Avenue
2 hours, 20 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $36 – $104
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Cross-gender casting Rick Hammerly as super-chav Lucy is a nice touch, bringing a much-needed dose of kink to the otherwise respectable proceedings. His bitch-off duet with Driscoll is a highlight. Smith’s Peachum delivers the one real class-consciousness gut punch moment, by signaling for the simple flip of a few cardboard placards.
The stripped down simpler moments are Threepenny’s best. Peachum’s signs. Jenny’s solo post-betrayal lament. Polly’s song of violent upheaval. Real humans suffering and raging against that suffering with passion and grace. With the talent and resources at hand, Signature had everything they needed to deliver something really special with Threepenny, but Gardiner and team often seem unwilling to risk swinging for the fences. Credit them for taking on a great challenge and getting through unscathed, but I would have more affection for this Threepenny had they dared more to risk failure.
The Threepenny Opera . Book & Lyrics by Bertolt Brecht . Music by Kurt Weill . English translation of dialog by Robert David MacDonald . English translation of lyrics by Jeremy Sams . Directed by Matthew Gardiner . Featuring Mitchell Jarvis, Natascia Diaz, Erin Driscoll, Rick Hammerly, Donna Migliaccio, Bobby Smith, John Leslie Wolfe, Aaron Bliden, Jamie Eacker, Paul Scanlan, Ryan Sellers, Thomas Adrian Simpson, Jessica Thorne, and Katherine Renee Turner . Choreographer: Matthew Gardiner . Music Director: Gabriel Mangiante . Scenic Design: Misha Kachman . Costume Design: Frank Labovitz . Lighting Design: Colin K. Bills . Sound Design: Lane Elms . Video/Projection Design: Rocco DiSanti . Stage Manger Kerry Epstein . Produced by Signature Theatre . Reviewed by Ryan Taylor.
Keith Loria . Theatermania
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