The Threepenny Opera, Signature Theatre

I wasn't going to write this review. What's the point? I thought. The show is closing in less than a week. The likelihood of this inspiring anyone to go see the show before it closes is next to nothing.

But then a thing happened.

I loved the show. I loved it more than anything I'd seen in years at Signature. I loved it so much, I went back to see it again three days later. And even then, I wasn't sure if I'd write about it.
But then a thing, as you know, happened.

Signature's Max Theatre is often configured as a thrust these days, and for Matthew Gardiner's production of The Threepenny Opera, the audience is often brought up into the actors' light. This is, after all, not just a Kurt Weil musical- it's a Bertolt Brecht book and lyrics to boot, and this is a show all about unsettling our complacency as an audience and reminding us of the artifice all around us, within the walls of the theatre and outside on the street. There's a lot to get us thinking as soon as we walk inside the Max; Misha Kachman's set is inspired not only by contemporary British street art but also by some pointed reminders of America itself, just enough to implicate us all.

This isn't the thing that happened.

The thing wasn't Natascia Diaz's Jenny, bringing us into the world of the performance with a gorgeous and heartrending rendition of "The Flick Knife Song" (better known, outside of Jeremy Sams' gripping and contemporary translation as "Mac the Knife"), wearing a coat from costume designer Frank Labovitz that perfectly placed her as our ringleader bringing us into the evening. It wasn't Bobby Smith and Donna Migliaccio as the devilishly enterprising Mr. and Mrs. Peachum either, even though both were in roaringly good form (and those who know these performers know just how strong praise that really is).

We're getting closer to that thing when I mention Erin Driscoll's performance as Polly. Driscoll has been a staple of Signature productions for years, but I've never seen her as exhilarating as she was in this role. Vocally, I was moments away from writhing in delight at her transitions between chest and head voice and back again.  Watching her character navigate her wedding to Mitchell Jarvis's Macheath amidst his gang of cuthroats, criminals, and stolen goods was incredibly timely theatre. I saw this production on Sunday, May 25, the same weekend a man shot and killed a group of young people because of a deadly mixture of privilege, misogyny, and wrong-headed entitlement. Just watching Driscoll's tiny frame totter on a pair of magnificently high heels around these men, navigating threats of violence moments after she giddily married the deadliest man of all, was enthralling- and then she sang "Pirate Jenny" and I watched her Polly embody the character of a woman who suffers and suffers at the hands of men until she rises to take action against them in the form of her pirate galleon. It was a heady rush of relevancy and theatrical showmanship and skill and I loved every second of it.

And yet, that wasn't the thing, either.

It wasn't in the second act, when things start to get a little more on the nose and there's a lot less singing. Gardiner's use of images of actual homeless men, placards protesting veteran's health care- these moments earn a startled and audible response from the audience. In the very final song, there's a reference to the homeless living in McPherson Square (the original lyrics in this translation refer to Covent Garden in one of several tweaks that attempt to increase the relevancy of a translation created to be of-the-moment in 1994). I actually quite like these, but that's still not what I'm thinking of. It wasn't Mrs. Peachum snapping a picture of Macheath's arrest, or Polly and Lucy Brown (wonderfully, if inexplicably played by Rick Hammerly) filming Macheath's imminent demise on their mobiles. It wasn't the way that having Macheath's gang adding percussion to "The Cannon Song" increased the energy and violence of an already potent number in a way that gave me chills.

For years, my favorite song in the entire piece has been "A Pimp's Tango", chillingly sung here by Jarvis and Diaz, and aided between verses by Gardiner's choreography. When I came back on Wednesday, I watched with delight as Jenny tangoed Macheath right into the cocked pistol of police chief Tiger Brown (John Leslie Wolfe)- and then heard from house left a startled "OH S#*T" ringing out into the shocked hush of the audience as the song faded away.

Even this isn't the thing. My device is no doubt growing stale at this point, so let me tell you now exactly what I mean.

Remember when I described the set, and how close the audience can wind up to the actors? I'm a gal that likes being close, so close that I may well get spat upon by an actors' enthusiastic devotion to diction. On Wednesday night, I was in the corner of house right, nestled in between a walkway and the stage. "The Second Threepenny Finale" is another favorite piece of mine, one involving the whole company. On Wednesday, I was right next to the place where Jamie Eacker (who plays Betty in the ensemble) came down to sing that finale. I glanced at her, and heard her voice quite clearly- it startled me to hear just how lovely her soprano was. Quick to avoid awkward eye contact, I let my gaze run across the actors, all of whom were arrayed at the edge of the stage, singing right out into the audience. This is a hell of an ensemble, and they were singing the hell out of the music. As the final bars neared, my eyes went right back to Eacker; I couldn't help it. She reached the last measure and our eyes met in the intensity of the moment and I couldn't look away.  The music swelled and- blackout.

And I smiled.

Beamed, really.

Every single thing had united just right- a score I loved, being sung so well, sung right to me in the audience, and I felt so damn satisfied and happy to be in that theatre at that moment.

That's the thing. That's the reason to go to the theatre at all- those moments that make you remember why we go, why we spend so much money for so much mediocrity, because every now and then, you get a perfect moment like that one. If there's any way that you can get down to Signature before the show closes on Sunday, do it. The artistry on display is powerful, and it's a hell of a good show. The level of your own transcendence might vary, but I sure as hell recommend this one.


Anonymous said…
This blogpost is so truthful. this is the most exhilarating show I have ever seen at Signature. I have seen all the the main performers before with the exception of Jarvis and the form these performers are in and how they deliver this piece of wait, OPERA, is astonishingly effecting. Run to the theatre before it closes!

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