Threepenny for Your Thoughts

theatreI feel like I’m in the right place when I see a Wilbury Group production. I cheered “U-S-A!” at The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity and I cried honest and unashamed at Lungs. Even with an unforeseen venue swap from the Butcher Block Mill to Trinity Church midseason, Wilbury didn’t break stride. As such, The Threepenny Opera is all at once a completely appropriate and deeply perplexing choice of a show to close the Wilbury Group’s 2012-2013 season.

So, the Wilbury mission, as I’ve come to understand, is to present untypical works of theater to compel, if not to challenge, audiences. That was abundantly evident in the minimalist soul-crusher called Lungs and in the unexpectedly insightful testosterone-fest that was Chad Deity. I had never read nor seen a production of Threepenny before. For two acts, I struggled to understand why Artistic Director Josh Short chose this show.

Because The Threepenny Opera has absolutely no pay-off. The plot was wholly irrelevant, and the catharsis of closure so vital to theater does not come. Considering this musical predates the Great Depression, that’s kind of a big deal. It’s a leap forward for theater with two middle fingers in the air and Slayer playing in the background.

The story follows Macheath, aka “Mac the Knife,” murderer, robber and all-around scumbag infamous enough to have his own hideout and henchmen. Mac attempts to wed Polly Peachum (doesn’t love her), but is forced into hiding as her insidious parents hunt him down. Along the way, we meet some prostitutes and policemen, but there is nothing of consequence about the plot. Right before Mac is executed, Brecht pulls the old Deus ex Machina and has a messenger appear from nowhere with a royal pardon for Macheath. Mac doesn’t die, nothing changes and nobody learns anything.

The Threepenny Opera, as the name might suggest, is a musical. Though frankly, I didn’t much care for the music. I’m pretty sure most of it was in the same minor key. Not to say the performance itself wasn’t up to par for Wilbury.

Josh Short was clearly on a mission to use the Wilbury Group’s new space at Trinity Church to its potential. Short used the entire theater to stage the show. Now, when I say the entire theater, I mean every possible point of entry and every level built into the space. There was little, if any, set, and the twin scaffolding and orchestra risers were purely functional and lent no real aesthetic beyond the actors moving upon them.

Being a musical, this show had a big ol’ cast. As Mac, David Tessier was a jerk of an antihero. Mac treats everyone like shit, and Tessier performed with all the gusto of a high school bully from a movie made in the 1980s. Remember Biff, from Back to the Future? Christine Dickinson had brilliant moments as Polly Peachum, forgoing the typically sweet disposition of her character to sing about the vicious tortures she would enjoy if she were a pirate. Tom Gleadow was consistently enjoyable as Mr. Peachum and Mac’s ex-flame Lucy Brown, Katie Travers, was gut-bustlingly hilarious.

The Threepenny Opera is a show meant to elicit an audience response. Brecht didn’t intend this odd musical to simply entertain, he meant it to make people think. Now, when the show was written in the 1920s, the critique of the capitalist system and the abrupt pardon of a confessed murderer may have held more clout. I didn’t walk away a political dissident, but I did become a Brecht believer. I did not see the climax (or lack thereof) coming, and completely appreciated it as a loogie spit right between the eyes of the theater world. I don’t know what you’re doing in terms of theater these days, but if you haven’t checked out the Wilbury Group yet, you’re missing out.

The Threepenny Opera runs from May 23 through June 8 at The Wilbury Theatre Group, 393 Broad St., Providence, RI.