The Threepenny Opera
Inventive direction and fun acting make a wonderful spectacle of Brecht's dark world
Reviewed by Avimaan Syam, Fri., Feb. 25, 2011
The Threepenny Opera
Oscar G. Brockett Theatre, 23rd & San Jacinto, 477-6066
Through Feb. 27
Running time: 2 hr., 45 min.
What's always set The Threepenny Opera apart from other works by Bertolt Brecht is the smoky, sexy, jazzy world of saucy whores, beggars, and cutthroats. Brecht's didactic philosophy?
Not so original. It's the rich world that created icons like Mack the Knife and Pirate Jenny that separates Threepenny, and that's what the University of Texas Department of Theatre & Dance's production focuses on in its engaging, inventive revival.
If the purpose of Threepenny is to show the similarity of society's underbelly to its bourgeois and intellectual classes, well, a lot of this underbelly is likable in that ragtag, zany, off-kilter way. This is an underbelly that you root for in the Bad News Bears sense; they're rough 'n' tough down-and-outers that you can't help cheering for.
Here, Macheath's gang of bandits is delightfully similar to Peter Pan's Lost Boys, a ramshackle collection of ne'er-do-wells who can't seem to exist without one another. Any truculent manner they display seems to be borne more of roguish impertinence than idealistic differences. The whores move as a pack, as does beggar king Peachum with his cronies – the patchwork quilt of Threepenny's world is woven expertly together in this production, particularly when the ensemble swells in larger song-and-dance numbers.
It's rather rare for a play to have all likable characters. It's even rarer in a play by Brecht. Yet the audience is asked to indulge in every character, even potential baddies: The corrupt nature of waffling Police Chief Tiger Brown is tempered by the tiny teddy bear he sleeps with at night; the Peachums delight with their we-loathe-each-other-more-than-we'll-ever-loathe-you swagger. And while actor Kyle Schnack imbues antihero Mack the Knife with a volatile demeanor – an icy cool that easily ratchets into a furious temper – he keeps enough of the vaudevillian escape artist about him that you want more of his duplicitous hijinks.
So much amiability does take a little of the edge off the drama at the play's conclusion. I felt like a glass had been filled rather than emptied, if that makes sense – instead of the traditional feeling of climax and release into denouement, the ending just felt like a logical stopping point for the world being presented. That might be a problem if you want to feel the steelier side of Brecht, though it wasn't a problem for me.
Halena Kays' relentlessly inventive direction really makes Threepenny a delight: I could fill the entire review with a list of the magical moments and props this show offers. The strong sense of world-building flows through some beautiful design and a well-knit, enjoyable ensemble, punctuated by Amanda Morish's sweet singing as Pirate Jenny and Alexis Scott's wonderful comedic timing as Jacob.
The Threepenny Opera is one of the most consistent and coherent productions I've seen at UT and a wonderful spectacle to watch. This very active interpretation skips the rhetoric and focuses instead on creating an entertaining, delightful show.