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Thursday, June 13, 2024

Theatre review: The Threepenny Opera has tough time finding relevance in 2016

Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's satire never quite bridges the chasm of eight decades

The Threepenny Opera is a bit of an enigma.

Far from being a traditional opera as its title suggests, this Kurt Weil and Bertolt Brecht penned opus also fails to fit neatly inside the musical theatre genre. More accurately referred to as a “play with music”, this 1920s Socialist critique on capitalism feels clunky at best when viewed through a contemporary lens.

Trotting out shows like The Threepenny Opera seems to be a trend of late. Declaring those of a certain age as still relevant, in a world where the disparity between the one percent and the rest continues to widen, we are led to believe they still have much to say to today’s audiences. While in some cases that might be true, this three-act manifesto never quite bridges the chasm of eight decades.

What was considered as shocking and subversive eighty years ago barely registers in 2016. Perhaps it has to do with this Marc Blitzstein translation, largely viewed as a softened version of the original, but it takes a heck of a lot more to ruffle feathers these days than a satirical story of beggars, murderers, prostitutes, and other grey areas of humanity.

The gap is made even wider under Jay Hamburgers’ direction, where many of the play’s characters either don’t go quite far enough, or some are so over-the-top they land squarely in the ridiculous. The unevenness, especially when trying to find a balance with the real world themes it explores, makes for a confusing evening.

Despite the confusion there are a few nice performances. Nailing the Weimar style in Weill’s music is Danielle Lemon as Mrs Peachum, and both Stephen Aberle and Kevin Armstrong bring strong work to her husband and Macheath respectively.  With his booming baritone voice though, Armstrong did tend to overpower everyone around him.

With one of the best voices of the night, Adam Olgui does nice work as the de facto narrator, and easily handles the immediately recognizable “Ballad of Mack The Knife”. His hilarious appearance in “The Mounted Messenger” is a highlight.

Katie Purych gives a nice turn as Polly Peachum, at times finding the necessary balance between her character’s strength and vulnerability.

Highlighting the unevenness in this production though, Stephen Street plays police commissioner Tiger Brown with such exaggeration it borders on parody. There is also a strange sexual nature to his relationship with Macheath that is never explored.

Under Hamburger’s direction, the quartet of Macheath’s henchmen – Olgui, Damon Jang, Jeff Hoffman and zi paris – are all over the map, although Olgui and Hoffman feel the most grounded.

The five piece band, under the direction of Earle Peach, does struggle at times with Weill’s sometimes difficult atonal score, and while Anne Meeson’s costumes are a hodgepodge of Victorian, 1920s Germany, and contemporary East Vancouver, they largely work.

Relevance aside, finding the right balance in a show like The Threepenny Opera would no doubt be problematic for even the most seasoned of theatre professionals. Perhaps there is some irony in knowing this production comes from a company called Theatre in the Raw.

The Threepenny Opera with books and lyrics by Bertolt Brecht and music by Kurt Weill. English adaptation by Marc Blitzstein. Directed by Jay Hamburger. A Theatre in the Raw presentation. On stage at the Russian Hall (600 Campbell Ave, Vancouver) until November 27. Visit for tickets and information.

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