I confess to walking into the opening night performance of Bertolt Brecht’s THE THREEPENNY OPERA at the REP with something akin to unbridled excitement. Although my theatre education did not completely neglect the German playwright, this was my first time attending a production of his work. University of Delaware professors take note! Additionally, while I dearly enjoy nearly every production at the REP, the productions over the last two seasons, thus far, have not drifted far from realism, and I was delighted to see not only a return to Brecht (after 2010’s THE RESISTIBLE RISE OF ARTURO UI), as well as their first musical (at least to my memory and confirmed by a quick check at their performance history- correct me if I am wrong!)
The REP’s core company certainly landed on an excellent choice for the wide range of singing talent present in the company not built around musical talent. That is not to say the vocals are bad – they aren’t! – but they do not have the power and range required by most of musical theatre. Thus they are very well suited to Kurt Weill’s score, more intended to increase Brecht’s famous alienation than to blow away audiences with sheer talent.
The play follows Mac the Knife (Mic Matarrese) as he weds the daughter (Deena Burke) of the corrupt ‘Panhandler’s Pal’ Mr. Peachum (Stephen Pelinski), and stays a step ahead of the law in Victoria’s England. Mac’s gang is filled out by newcomers on the stage, all men, who double as the denizens of his brothel. A note to the REP – although these actors are not professionals, indicated by the program, it would have been nice to include bios for these performers as well, or at least indicate where they came from. Filling out the cast: the outstanding Elizabeth Heflin as Jenny, a jilted whore lover of Mac, Kathleen Pirkl-Tague in one of the funniest performances on REP’s stage as Mrs. Peachum, Michael Gotch in a series of small roles, and returning guest artists Anand Nagraj and Erin Partin.
The play begins, as they always do, with a greeting from Sandy Robbins requesting the audience turn off their cell phones to prevent distraction. While I certainly did not want phones to ring, the irony of preserving the onstage world in a play by Brecht seemed lost on all involved, a feeling that unfortunately lasted throughout the play for me. While some, such as Pelinski, Pirkl-Tague, and Burke, transitioned easily and comfortably between the world of the play and that of the audience, blurring the line almost to its extinction, the ensemble did seem trapped by the need to create an environment that the audience could lose themselves in, and thus lost many comic opportunities. And I was disappointed that we never left the joke of 6 young men dressed as female whores in the bordello scene. Heflin steals the show from the very beginning with ‘The Ballad of Mac the Knife,’ and while performances are as solid as they always are from the REP, the show always remains hers whenever she returns to the stage.
Choreography by Joann Browning deserves special recognition – the sharpness of movement, and choices to embrace stillness as much as bold movements are commendable. I was delighted to see Eileen Smithmeier (Lighting and Sound Designer) return to lighting design from last season’s LITTLE FOXES. Although we have been blessed with her sound talents through most of the REP’s productions, her talents as a lighting designer are extraordinary, and I hope to see much more of her work going forward.
All criticisms aside, THE THREEPENNY OPERA is overall well performed, superbly designed, and quite funny. Kudos to the REP for stepping outside their box and into some very intriguing theatre.
THE THREEPENNY OPERA
Book and Lyrics by Bertolt Brecht
Music by Kurt Weill
Directed by Matthew Earnest
January 17 – February 2, 2013
Resident Ensemble Players
University of Delaware
Roselle Center for the Arts
110 Orchard Rd
Newark, DE 19716