My two cents on 'The Threepenny Opera'

October 15, 2013
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In a production void of edges and urgency, Indianapolis Opera turned Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s “Threepenny Opera” into an exhausting evening featuring, on opening night, the most lackluster ovation I’ve ever heard at a professional production in Indianapolis. I don’t usually comment on audience reaction to a show one way or another, but in this case the flaccid ovation and the “should-we-or-shouldn’t-we” polite applause that capped many of the numbers only added to the awkwardness.

The critic tried to write the preceding paragraph many times. In it, he not only wanted to convey his disappointment with the production but also to capture his desire to see stronger work from a company capable of much better. Realizing that too much was being expected of an opening paragraph, he settled for a description he hoped captured the feeling of being trapped at the Basile Opera Center for three hours. Then the critic, not wanting to be presumptuous, thought that some plot description might be in order. At the same time, he didn’t want to insult those who were familiar with the famous work.

While the title may be familiar, the rarity of productions in these parts—and the lack of success of cinematic versions—may warrant a plot synopsis. Macheath, who leads an English gang, marries Polly. Her father, who leads the city’s beggars, isn’t happy with the relationship (minor detail: Macheath already has another bride, as well as a prostitute for a common-law wife) and so schemes to have him captured and hung.

But plot isn’t central to the Weill/Brecht vision. We’re not expected to identify emotionally with these underworld folks. Quite the opposite. We’re supposed to be thinking rather than feeling, constantly aware of the artifice of theater.

Now the critic decided to go back to the beginning of the review and add italicized commentary, commenting on the review in a Brecht/Weill sort of way.

That doesn’t mean, though, that “Threepenny Opera” should have at its core a Macheath who lacks any sign of menace and who looks more like Charlie Brown in a bad wig than the king of the London underworld (the part has been played in the past, FYI, by the likes of Jerry Orbach, Alan Cumming, Sting, and Raul Julia)

The critic is not comfortable being this snarky. But he cannot get around the feeling that the lead was cast for voice and availability alone. Then again, he does seem to only be blaming the visible workers (actors). What about a lack of directorial vision? Where's the consistency of tone? Could it be that the producers didn't give it enough rehearsal time?

One of the potential benefits of Indianapolis Opera’s use of the intimate Basile Opera Center rather than the cavernous Clowes Hall for select operas is that the former offers an intimacy impossible in the latter. Intimacy, though, comes with its own set of challenges. And those challenges are accentuated when the material includes spoken scenes. Brecht’s dialogue scenes go on at great length—longer than in many conventional musicals. It demands different kinds of actors than is required by most operas … actors that Indianapolis Opera hasn’t supplied.

The critic is considering mentioning IO productions that he felt were excellent, just so nobody will think he has something against the compay. He is also considering citing the near-rave review in Nuvo which encourages potential audience members to buy tickets not just because of the quality of the show but to help keep the Opera afloat. The critic is glad that there are other voices out there commenting on the arts but has very mixed feelings about this sort of advocacy in a review. Is it the role of the critic to encourage excellence or to accentuate the positive for fear that the company might go away? Should he factor in that there won’t be a new production by Indianapolis Opera until March (a return of “Amahl and the Night Visitors” doesn’t count)?

Through those music-free stretches, the completely visible small orchestra seemed bored. I sympathized.  

So did I

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  • The risk of live theatre
    I was very much looking forward to this production because I love "Threepenny Opera" and I loved that the Indianapolis Opera was willing to take a chance on a more non-traditional piece. In fact I was so looking forward to this production that I talked my sister from out of town into coming to Indianapolis just to see the performance. We were both disappointed in a production that was stilted and awkward for both the audience and the performers. After the performance, I apologized for talking up what turned out to a disappointing experience. But my sister had a great point about the whole thing. She said that is the risk we take when we see live theater. It is almost never going to be perfect and sometimes it is going to be awful. But we pay our money and take the risk because we know each performance is going to be unique to only the people who are in the room with us. That is why we keep coming back. I think she's right.
    • Cheers!
      God bless your sister!
    • Yes
      Bravo, Bonnie.
    • Thank you
      After reading the Nuvo review (and posting a brief comment disagreeing with it), I did wonder if there might be something wrong with my perception, or if I was harboring wildly unrealistic expectations of quality for Indianapolis professional theater. I'm so glad I wasn't alone in my reaction to this production.
    • Disappointed, too.
      Thank goodness for this review. We attended the show on Saturday and was really, really disappointed. After reading the other 2 reviews (on Nuvo and skybluewindow) and thought we were the only ones who didn't like it. We absolutely agree with everything you wrote. We give them kudos for wanting to put Threepenny Opera on, but wished they would have done it much, much better than they did. (yes, the orchestra seemed totally bored. You could tell by how much they were, visibly, yawning!)

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