Review: Phoenix Theatre’s Threepenny Opera a visual feast

What: The Threepenny Opera

Where: Phoenix Theatre

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When: To Nov. 21

Rating: four (out of five)

 

The Threepenny Opera, a famously influential “play with music,” is now a grandfatherly 87 years old.

Yet Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s subversive romp remains as potent and topical as ever — as a visually striking new production at the University of Victoria reminds us.

In The Threepenny Opera, everyone merrily flings morality into the dustbin. Fagin-like Mr. Peachum runs a beggar-gang who fake disease and broken limbs to glean handouts. MacHeath (a.k.a. Mac the Knife) is a psycho-slasher who oversees a gaggle of thieves and cheats on both his wives.

The pair are enemies, yet both are fellow capitalists scrabbling to make a dishonest buck. With satirical impudence, Brecht implies Peachum and MacHeath, with their curiously middle-class values, aren’t so different from you and me.

Admittedly, UVic’s student production of The Threepenny Opera is one long night at the theatre — topping three hours with two intermissions. And, depending on taste, some might prefer a more decadent, pulled-from-the-gutter approach. Yet the rewards are there.

I’m told the expense of hiring a seven-piece band meant little money was left for set and props. So it’s a real testament to the design crew (especially costumer Jacqueline Gilchrist) that this show looks so terrific. The beggars, bandits and whores wear wonderful outfits of red, black and white. Cost-cutting plastic and cardboard loom large in these costumes — and they look stunning. The pièce de resistance is the arrival of the queen in a shimmery, plastic-y creation that might have come from a Paris runway.

The set and lighting are minimal and effective. Jacques Lemay has shrewdly created simple yet bold choreography that works well. In this regard, a highlight is the Cannon Song for MacHeath and the police chief, an exaggerated, high-stepping affair that eventually pulls in the entire cast.

The band, led by Hank Pine, is good. A singer as well as a musician, Pine, hobbling about on crutches, launched the evening with a strong version of The Ballad of Mac the Knife. (This show uses an edgy English translation by Robert MacDonald and Jeremy Sams; the book and lyrics are often appealingly raunchy.)

There’s plenty of worthwhile singing throughout. Dressed in a shiny black corset, Lindsay Robinson — a tall, handsome actor with a commanding stage presence — impressed as MacHeath. As Thursday’s opening-night performance progressed, Robinson seemed to only get stronger with such numbers as Pimp’s Tango, Ballad of the Easy Life as well as MacHeath’s impassioned plea just before his imminent hanging.

Another vocal standout — notably with Polly’s Song and the Barbara Song — was Pascal Lamothe-Kipnes as Polly, sporting a series of spectacular chiffon-style skirts.

Space prohibits a full discussion of the 21-member cast. Shauna Baird is a solid Mr. Peachum, although the decision to cross-gender cast the role is a bit of a mystery. As the police chief, Aidan Correia is a fine foil to MacHeath. And Estee Klue is a powerful, unrepentant Jenny.

Director Brian Richmond keeps the cast hopping. In keeping with Brecht’s notion of epic theatre, the acting (employing a variety of U.K. accents) is broad and theatrical.

There’s good attention to detail; even bit-role performers create distinct personas through movement and gesture. The irreverent spirit of the MacDonald/ Sams translation is reflected in such touches as a flatulating harlot or a priest caught in a sexual imbroglio.

On this particular night, the sense of depth and cohesion that distinguishes the best productions surfaced only in the final scenes.

Certainly, this is an ambitious project on all levels — some of the music is difficult, indeed.

The students have worked hard on this shows. I suspect this Threepenny Opera — already well worth seeing — will further find its footing as the run continues.

achamberlain@timescolonist.com

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