FROM OUR FILM AND THEATER CRITICS

My “Two cents” for the Threepenny Opera worth far more than two bits

A Lawrence, Kan., production of the Brecht-Weill musical masterpiece highlights the good and evil in crooks and cops alike.

By Mary Gregerson, PhD

The Threepenny Opera by poet-playwright Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill reveals 1928 German Epic theatre at its best. In a recent apt performance by the Lawrence, Kansas Arts Center troupe directed by Ric Averill, Artistic Director of Performing Arts, psychological themes emerged in this “beggar’s opera” with nary a psychologist in sight. A tongue-in-cheek satire of both the mainstream opera and operetta of its time, this precursor to musical comedy pokes fun at mores, morals, and the deus ex machina of everyman’s wish fulfillment for last minute reprieve and rescue.

The central theme of good vs. evil emerged as the lead character “Mack the Knife” (portrayed by Seth Golay, an Actors’ Equity player) struggled with his gangster and good guy sides, personifying the psychodynamic concept of splitting. He’s a horrific enemy and a great friend. Spoiler alert!—He marries goody-two-shoes Polly Peachum (played by Lawrence native Breanna Pine, returned from New York City) while obsessed with prostitutes. Even his friends split, becoming turncoats to their essential natures; that is, the prostitutes become good citizens by turning in Mack, and the police become bad—his childhood friend Chief Constable Tiger Brown (embodied by Ric Averill) twists and turns the law to protect Mack from the “crime of incarceration.” What finally does in Mack is his compulsion to visit “his whores,” where he is nabbed for the second time by authorities, who first captured him when he was betrayed by these denizens of the night—some people never learn!

The last minute rescue (deus ex machina, literally translated as Machine of God which plucks the threatened hero/heroine from peril) of Mack from the gallows by the soon-to-be-visiting Queen is hilariously staged with the same parable-like whimsy Averill showed when directing for many years the now sadly defunct Seem-To-Be- Players children’s theatre troupe. His signature had always been the unexpected. One wonders what over-the-top embellishments might have delightedly populated the earlier parts of the opera staging had he let that chained imagination flow unfettered, seeping into the, by comparison, relatively staid, expected period piece—being historical does not keep one from being hysterical. Yet the singular incongruity of the deus ex machina messenger “riding” a clapboard carousel horse heightens its hilarity.

Still, the mostly staid comportment early on is shattered occasionally by what one Bible Belt critic (Shepherd, 2012) called “racy,” meaning when fellatio is implied and when prostitutes sit with legs splayed. Such pro forma sexuality, though, lacks the guttural verve arising from sexual tension between revealing and not wanting to reveal that infuses the entertainment truism “sex sells.”

This review would be incomplete without mention of THE major star of the opera—the 12-musician Free State Liberation Orchestra conducted by Carlos Espinosa. The musical group gallantly played original scores on 23 different instruments, including the harmonium—all in our party chattered among ourselves, trying to determine at the outset what was a harmonium! This late 19th/ early 20th century popular musical instrument produces accordionlike sounds by bellows-driven air passing over free reeds. Though purportedly background orchestration, this front-and-center music provided more foundation than framework and proved the outstanding performance of the evening. Bravo!

References

Sheperd, S. (2012/Oct 14). Racy “Threepenny Opera” comes to Arts Center. lawrence.com Accessed on Oct. 24, 2012 via Internet Explorer at http:// www.lawrence.com/news/2012/oct/14/racy-threepenny-opera-comes-arts-center/