Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Review: It's Delicious Thievery in A Noise Within's THE THREEPENNY OPERA

Pre-show: A Noise Within's The Threepenny Opera. Scenic Design by Frederica
Nascimento. Lighting Design by Ken Booth, Scenic Painter: Orlando de la Paz.
Photo by Musicals in LA

The first thing you notice when you step into the theater for A Noise Within’s The Threepenny Opera is Frederica Nascimento’s stunningly vivid set design. It’s a deconstruction in which none of the elements are hidden: lighting instruments are in plain sight; pieces of scenery hang suggestively from the rails but without trying to make a complete picture; furniture litters the upstage areas and props are scattered about; the band is in plain view tuning up on one side and actors in rags are already roaming the audience.

It’s an immediate in-your-face blow to the forehead to sit up and pay attention for the kind of theatre you are about to see is not meant to whisk you away to a fantasy land where you get lost in a fictional story but instead insists that you as an audience member will never forget you are watching a play.

Andrew Ableson (Macheath) and Marisa Duchowny (Polly Peachum).
Photos by Craig Schwartz ©2015

Brechtian theatre, or epic theatre as it is also called, is named after Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) and many of its revolutionary elements are still employed by theatre companies today. A lifelong Marxist, Brecht intentionally experimented with theatre as a political medium. He wanted to use it to educate audiences by making them think rather than merely entertaining them. Together with composer Kurt Weill (1900-1950), he would write perhaps his most popular work, The Threepenny Opera, which was a turning point in musical theatre in the early part of the twentieth century.

The Threepenny Opera is based on John Gay’s 18th Century The Beggar’s Opera, which also satirized politics, as well as the favorite musical art form of the day, Italian opera. The scenes are episodic, with songs often announced by an actor carrying a large handwritten placard in directors Julia Rodriguez-Elliot and Geoff Elliott’s staging. These musical interludes are meant to interrupt the action and are conveniently titled so there is no doubt as to what they are (e.g. - Love Song, Wedding Song, Pimp’s Ballad, Song of Futility, Jealousy Duet) and how you’re meant to observe them. A Noise Within’s revival nails the stylistic characteristics of the piece, not the least of which is its overriding sense of detachment. There is a moral here but it is delivered in a very unique manner. 

It’s Berlin in the Weimar era and Peachum (Geoff Elliott) is in the pity business, preying upon the rich by hiring phony beggars to steal all they can in order to pad his pockets. When his daughter Polly (Marisa Duchowny) runs away and marries the charismatic criminal Macheath (Andrew Ableson), Peachum loses all control over her and vows to have Macheath jailed and out of his way for good. But Mackie’s friend Tiger Brown (Jeremy Rabb) is the police chief and Brown succeeds in keeping his old friend out of jail. Well, until he can’t, and although things may look dicey for Mackie mid-way through, by the time the final brilliantly-written scene plays out and the unlikely ending falls into place, Brecht makes his point and it’s up to the audience to ponder the takeaway.

The cast is excellent, from Elliott and Deborah Strang (Mrs. Peachum) as the greedy emblems of a dog eat dog world to Ableson, who cuts a pointedly angular figure as the anti-hero, Macheath. In a show where voices don’t necessarily need to be beautiful to be effective, the fact that he sings well is an added plus. As Polly, the lovely Duchowny is a bedraggled child bride who drags an actual baby doll around the stage wherever she goes. Her twist on the character is the freshest interpretation I’ve seen of the role and a reinvention that is as comic as it is pathetic. She goes from petulant young waif to spitfire den mother of Macheath’s band of thieves in the blink of an eye and is the best of many reasons for you to see this production. Stasha Surdyke balances smoky sensuality with sad inevitability for prostitute Jenny Diver, the role Lotte Lenya originated in Germany and won a Tony Award for on Broadway, and Maegan McConnell adds a viciously comic edge to the conniving Lucy Brown. 

Weill’s score was originally presented by 7 musicians covering 23 instrumental parts and music director DeReau K. Farrar conducts his 7-piece orchestra for A Noise Within presumably to those original specifications. What I can tell you is that they sound great on the difficult music which is a direct departure from the traditions of grand opera and includes the freer elements of jazz, British music hall tunes, and Weill’s characteristic sound-scapes. Gieselle Blair’s stylized make-up design, accentuated by heavy black eyebrows, deep red lips, and white face powder, captures the decadence and eroticism of the 1920’s Berlin cabaret scene with a humorous flair. 

The Threepenny Operas popularity with audiences and the fact that it is rarely done has proved advantageous for A Noise Within, who announced an extension even before it opened. Intended for the masses and written to elicit a thoughtful response regarding the inequities of society, this is a revival that is worthy of your time and strong enough to leave a lasting impression. See it!

From the Merriam Webster Dictionary:  Threepenny -- adjective
1. costing or worth three British pennies (threepence)  2. poor

Andrew Ableson (Macheath), Jeremy Rabb (Tiger Brown), and
Marisa Duchowny (Polly Peachum)

Stasha Surdyke (Jenny Diver) and Deborah Strang (Mrs. Peachum)

The Ensemble of The Threepenny Opera

Andrew Ableson (Macheath) and Ensemble

The ensemble with Andrew Ableson (Macheath) 

Marisa Duchowny as Polly Peachum

Stasha Surdyke as Jenny Diver

Marisa Duchowny (Polly Peachum), Andrew Ableson (Macheath), and
Abubakr Ali (Crook-Fingered Jack) 

THE THREEPENNY OPERA

February 15 - May 17, 2015
A Noise Within
East Foothill Blvd., Pasadena, CA 91107
Tickets: (626) 356-3100 or www.anoisewithin.org

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