I’m not sure if it was my perfume or the play, but by the beginning of the third act, my entire section of the audience had not returned. At first, I was a bit alarmed that they would start the last act before approximately 30 people returned from the restrooms, but the unfortunate truth quickly dawned on me: They had walked. Now, I think there are very few reasons to walk out of a show before curtain bows, and Raleigh Little Theatre’s The Threepenny Opera truly didn’t warrant any of them. It’s one thing to bolt at intermission of a Broadway stinker that you’ve dropped a couple hundred bucks on, but it’s another when you’ve got a community theater company soldiering through an ambitious, difficult play that also asks for commitment from the audience.
Originally produced in the Weimar heyday of 1928 Berlin, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s show swept Europe by storm, producing 46 stage versions the following year and by 1933, 130 productions worldwide. Although Threepenny is based on a much older 18th-century work by John Gay called The Beggar’s Opera, Brecht’s book and Weill’s music broke the saccharine tradition of lyrical, musicals and challenged the bourgeois aristocracy and politicians with a show of jolting, cacophonous, bawdy originality that, when produced successfully, left audiences stunned.
Unfortunately, RLT’s production does not reach this level of achievement, although it deserves high marks for great effort in interpretation and execution. But, it must be said that Threepenny is just one hard-ass play to direct and perform. Clearly, director Haskell Fitz-Simons was summoning the gods of The Roundabout Theatre’s recent productions of Threepenny and Cabaret and tried to portray a darkly deceitful Victorian Soho with Brechtian panache but it came off more like stand and scowl: “Grrrrr, I’m a bad guy, watch me snarl.” “Grrrrr, I’m a whore, hear me roar.”
Brechtian theater is quite unlike the Stanislavsky “method.” Brecht purposefully wishes the audience to not empathize with the actors or characters being portrayed. Grabbing hold of this complicated verfremdungseffekt concept is basic to Brecht’s work. More simply referred to as the V-effekt (or even more memorably, “alienation” effect) a director has to create a show with which audiences identify objectively, not emotionally. The director has to employ all techniques available—gaudy, unrealistic makeup and costumes, abrupt ending to songs, starkly limited lighting, placards and confrontational staging—to achieve this end. Only successful “strange-making” will allow an audience to disconnect with the characters and think about the words and lyrics uninfluenced by emotion.
Fitz-Simons and the actors no doubt worked very hard to achieve this and they do achieve the disconnect on many levels, but after three hours, I also lost interest. This was mainly due to the performance of the main character. The murderous Macheath is a fearsome crook who’d sell his own grandmother for a bob or two, but the growling Mark Ridenour, while menacing, didn’t convey the sex appeal that makes Mack the Knife worth swooning over. Indeed, it was hard to understand what the fuss over him was all about.
His wife, Polly Peachum, played by the delicate Kate P. Bowra did a commendable job of standing by her man—despite uncovering a laundry list of distasteful deeds—and brought to mind the contemporary dilemmas of humiliated women in public life. Macheath’s paramour, the prostitute, Jenny Diver, is portrayed as a walking corpse by Izzy Burger. Consumed and unhinged by her love for Macheath and pushed to the edge after uncovering his deceitfulness, she belts out a vengeful “Pirate Jenny.” The penultimate nail in Macheath’s coffin—before his public hanging—is yet one more lovely miss led astray, Lucy Brown, played by the graceful Jean Marie Whaley. Wearing a wonderfully comic costume that highlighted her membership to “the club,” she delighted the audience in her rendition of “Barbara Song.”
Other highlights include the Street Singers, played by RLT veterans Rose Martin and Brent Wilson, who not only reminded me of why “Mack the Knife” became such a hit for Frank Sinatra and Bobby Darin, but surprised me with lyrics I’d never heard before. Alison B. Lawrence played the grouchy Mrs. Peachum but she played the character on one note—brassy and upstaging—throughout. I did enjoy her “Ballad of Sexual Dependency” and bits with the scene-chewing Stuart Byhm, who played her equally distasteful husband. Macheath’s gang provided some much-needed comic relief with Joshua Broadhurst, the elastic Readymoney Matt, relishing Macheath’s unfolding disasters and poised to strike at the heals of his master.
Lighting designer Joshua A. Reaves does an effective job of portraying a decaying 1920s London full of footlights and shadows, playing with surreally stark makeup and costumes. The orchestra, despite some seriously strident brassy notes, did a commendable job with Weill’s notoriously difficult music and did create, once again, a sense of immoral decay oozing throughout the play.
The world of The Threepenny Opera is remarkably current: corruption flows freely throughout society and seduces all classes of people now, just as it did in the 1920s (and in the play’s 18th-century English setting). To walk out on this show seems to be a form of denial, rather than action.