Productions at the Nightingale Theater are often free-wheeling shows that play havoc with theatrical conventions, and Bertolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera makes a great installment in this year's season. Directed by Starr Hardgrove and produced by the Actor's Company of Tulsa, this musical comedy mocks the light operas of its day but is still fresh and relevant in its criticisms of both theater and of society.
The Threepenny Opera is the story of Macheath, also known as Mack the Knife, London's prince of thieves. Unlike Robin Hood, however, Mack is a swaggering, silver-tongued force of nature fueled by testosterone and braggadocio. Mack has seduced the daughter of a local guildmaster, Polly Peachum.
Her father, Mr. Peachum, upon hearing about the marriage, brings all his power as master of London's beggars to bear on Mack the Knife. Eventually, Mack the Knife is caught and, despite his close friendship with the chief of police, sentenced to hang. It is in these last moments that the full effect of Brecht's satire strikes home.
Bertolt Brecht is best known for his use of Verfremdungseffekt (or V. effekt), which can be translated variously as "alienation effect" or "estrangement effect." Brecht employed these effects liberally in his plays, and intended them to distance the audience from the characters, to prevent us from empathizing with them. Brecht wanted his audience never to forget that they were watching art, something artificial, in order to direct their attention to the problems of the real world, which theater only reflects.
Though there were times when I felt as though I was being invited by this production to empathize with its characters, for the most part Hardgrove successfully employed V. effekt.
One of my favorite little moments was Joseph Gomez's entrance as Filch. In a play with more commitment to realism, there would have been a door for Filch to open. Other, more surrealistic plays will leave out the door and have the actor pantomime the knocking on and opening of the invisible door.
In this Brechtian production, Gomez "opens" the door with a gesture that seems to say, "Ah, to hell with it," then simply waltzes right onto the stage.
This kind of meta-humor pervades the production, including some interaction with the orchestra.
Wait, "orchestra?" In the Nightingale? Yep. It's a six-piece band right onstage, and if you know anything about the Nightingale you'd think that wouldn't leave much room for the actors. Somehow, Hardgrove finds a way to squeeze them all in there without pinning anyone down. It's a nice bit of staging. And as intimate as the space is, the band's volume rarely overpowers the singers'.
It's the biggest production I've ever seen in the Nightingale.
With more than a dozen actors, the band, and an elaborate set, one has to wonder how it was all accomplished.
Then again, Hardgrove has a talent for networking. Few other people could get a production like this on its feet with limited resources.
The Threepenny Opera has also had some solid advertisement around Tulsa, something which I'd like to see other companies focus their efforts on. Hardgrove even takes advantage of online social media such as Facebook to increase visibility.
There are only a few discouraging factors about this production. Even though it's a breezy comedy, The Threepenny Opera still clocks in at about two hours and 40 minutes, including two intermissions.
On the other hand, John Cruncleton as the play's anti-hero, Mack the Knife, turns in such a raucous and convincing performance that those hours breeze by. Cruncleton and Jason Watts, as the chief of police Tiger Brown, have a hilarious chemistry. Andy Axewell as Ready Money Matt (as well as a few unnamed parts) has a blast.
The rest of the cast turns in solid performances as well. Cassie Hollis, who seems to favor a presentational approach to acting, works well as Polly Peachum. Annie Ellicott is magnetic as Jenny Diver, so much so that I worried she was out of place in this Brechtian play. Fortunately, her shticks with her walking cane and her pipe were powerful V. effekts.
It's not the kind of play you leave clutching your sides, but if you're familiar with the conventions of theater then you're likely to be amused by Brecht's, and by Hardgrove's, demolition of those conventions. It's also a rare occasion to see one of Brecht's plays produced here in Tulsa. The 80th anniversary of this play's opening was celebrated just one month ago; perhaps this weekend you should join the celebration down at the Nightingale.
The Threepenny Opera runs September 25-27 at 8pm. For more information you can visit nightingaletheater.com or call 633-8666.
This weekend, you'll also be able to catch The Curse of the Phantom Cowboy, a murder mystery dinner at Molly's Landing in Catoosa. Visit www.UltimateMurderMystery.com or call 857-8092 for more info.
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