Eugene Weekly : Theater : 11.15.07

The Big Absurdity
Collaborative Threepenny Opera makes the grade

Beggars can’t be choosers — or so runs conventional wisdom. But even if you’re feeling the pinch of a slowing economy, Threepenny Opera would be a choice seat.

MacHeath (Chip Sherman) watches Polly (Rachel O’Malley) learn his “business”. PHOTO: UO DEPT OF THEATRE ARTS

The combined UO/LCC production shows off a smart contemporary translation of the original Bertolt Brecht play. A few strong singers in the cast backed by a tight small orchestra also make Kurt Weill’s most popular music shine anew. And that’s not even counting the production values — the complex, virtuoso set, the incisive lighting, the staging that incorporates every portion of LCC’s utilitarian Performance Hall and thoroughly dissolves the fourth wall. The second act founders a bit on the shoals of slow scenes and an unfortunately sophomoric climax, but overall, students from both schools pull off this multifaceted show.

Brecht and Weill borrowed the plot from an early 18th century piece called The Beggar’s Opera by satirist John Gay. Using the characters of highway robber MacHeath and stolen goods receiver Peachum, Gay poked serious fun at his government’s corruption. Brecht’s play hews faithfully to Gay’s work, but he updated it to the reign of Queen Victoria and brought in the brilliant Weill to write songs.

In 1954, a version of Threepenny opened on Broadway, and many lefties and musical fans grew up with the lyrics of that production. But directors Joseph Gilg (from the UO) and Patrick Torelle (from LCC) chose to stage a mid-’90s update from British translators Robert David MacDonald (book) and Jeremy Sams (lyrics).

This one generally tracks with contemporary sensibilities, speaking directly of exploitation, virginity, whores and abortion. One problem: There’s a rather cynical message that beggars plot ways to earn human sympathy and money. In Eugene, where it’s hard not to get fed up with street folk aggressively pursuing change, this idea runs counter to the point the actors and directors intend to make about helping the poor.

With a Brecht play, the seams should show, and here, they do. The actors interact with the audience, sitting in the house when they’re not in the action. Supertitles perform the heroic act of forcing the audience into self-awareness. Some props have huge labels on them (the most absurd being the gun with a dangling tag reading “GUN”). And the well constructed scenery doesn’t get changed in the dark; actors move it around even as they’re starting new scenes. Oh, and the audience once gets to sing along, a device that fits well with the continual exaggeration of Rachel O’Malley as Polly Peachum and Kelsey Chun as Lucy Brown.

Both vocal majors with gorgeous instruments, O’Malley and Chun await applause and take their bows as if Threepenny were an actual opera. Their voices usually rivet the audience; only in their duet do they lose articulation and focus. O’Malley especially wins kudos for her killer “Pirate Jenny.” That’s a song often sung by prostitute Jenny Driver (Megan Joy, who belts it out in her own less polished but eerily staged “Mack the Knife”), but it makes sense for Polly to display a potential dark side. And when Jenny sings Sams’ translation of “Mack the Knife,” her later betrayal of him makes more sense: Mack’s a cold-blooded killer.

The seven-person orchestra, led by Hung-Yun Chu with brio and absolute musical fidelity from the keyboard, knits the piece together. Chip Sherman, playing the central character of MacHeath, throws his large voice around with controlled menace and uses his lithe body to project his character as a true toff. When he’s not onstage (as in about half of the second act), things aren’t as interesting — except when J.J. Peachum (Chas King) holds forth. Those two combine strong acting skills with good singing voices and the ability to impel audience attention. Of the minor characters, John Jeffrey makes Matt the Minter sympathetic, and Stephanie Brubaker holds her own as Smith, the easily tempted warden.

A few issues stalk the production. Some actors aren’t compelling; Patrick O’Driscoll doesn’t quite have the singing chops for his role as police chief Tiger Brown; and Ryan Primm should not be mugging so much as Reverend Kimball. The finale, which uses a deus ex machina (or rather rex ex machina) to save MacHeath, throws in much silliness about Consumer-Driven Life In Wartime.

But this remains a bold show, a robust production full of stylish choices that should win converts to this new translation and herald an era of interschool cooperation.

The Threepenny Opera continues Nov. 15-16 at LCC. Get there early; the ticket folks aren’t smooth, and the show begins at 7:30 pm. Tix available at 346-4363.