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The Threepenny Opera

A DIY production of Bertolt Brecht's classic promises your money’s worth

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Opera stars (from left) Tim Paggi, Brandon Arinoldo, and Kris Hanrahan stay warm.

The Threepenny Opera

By Bertolt Brecht

At the Autograph Playhouse Nov. 11-13 and 18-20

There is no heat in the Autograph Playhouse. After years of disuse, the newly reopened theater at the corner of Charles and 25th streets isn’t fully rehabbed (“Autograph Playhouse Opens in Derelict 25th Street Theater,” Stage, Oct. 5), and at 8 p.m. this late in the year, the chill is a noticeable setback.

It’s a testament to the Annex Theater’s current production of The Threepenny Opera, then, that sitting through the two-hour show is worth it. The space itself is quirky, with a lobby that’s still a bit of a mess and a grand old stage that whispers of times past (though it was recently refurbished). There could almost be no better match for it than Annex, known for reimagining anything it stages. City Paper visited during a full run-through rehearsal/press preview in order to publish ahead of the short stage run, and some key elements were missing—the band, for example—but even at 80 percent baked, everything was, quite simply, fun.

Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s hit musical first took the stage in 1928, but it’s still relatable today, and as such is still performed with some frequency. Its central character is Macheath (Brandon Arinoldo), a smooth-talking street crook whose list of crimes runs thick with rapes, attempted murders, petty thefts, and the like; his list of women runs, if possible, thicker. He runs a business of sorts on the streets of London, and his close posse consists of Bob the Saw, Crookfinger Jake, and Readymoney Matt, here played by three women (Rose Chase, Gina Denton, and Cordelia Snow, respectively) who double as prostitutes in Macheath’s favorite whorehouse.

The criminal runs afoul of the Peachums, who run an odd business of their own: managing the city’s beggars. It’s so hard to get pity outta people these days, Mr. Peachum (Geoff Graham) moans, as he explains to Filch (Martin Kasey), his newest recruit, how he’ll take a cut of his earnings. Mrs. Peachum (Pilar Diaz) enters, and they realize their daughter Polly (Kris Hanrahan)—old enough to marry, young enough to be bossed around by her parents—never came home the night before. Turns out she’s gotten mixed up with Macheath, whom she weds. The Peachums are furious, and seek to make some money off finally getting Mac arrested—a feat that’s thus far been avoided due to Mac’s army history with the police commissioner (Tim Paggi). Mrs. Peachum buys off Jenny (Cricket Arrison), one of Mac’s many ex-lovers, to turn him in, and a pursuit full of jealous women and tawdry bribes begins.

The original Threepenny sought to parody the prevailing traditional opera in a nod to John Gay’s 1728 The Beggar’s Opera, which itself parodied Handel and his operas. It brought stage and art to the level of the poor—of which there were many at the time of its debut—and wagged a finger at the elite. As Mac asks after his outlandish deus ex machina reprieve at the end, who is worse: he who robs a bank, or he who founds one?

It’s a sentiment that resonates all too well today. Annex’s adaptation, directed by Evan Moritz (City Paper’s Best of Baltimore “Best Director” 2010), seeks to modernize it and, according to a press release, focus “. . . less on political Fascism, and more on the various ways in which powerful technologies push us from our fellow man.” The stage here is fitted with two large rotating slabs, painted red brick on one side to represent the street, a clean white on the other, onto which images are projected as a kind of virtual set. Stairs at stage left lead to a banistered platform; behind it is a large screen that displays narration in gothic, neon type between scenes and animations like falling clip-arty cheeseburgers during a moment of celebration. It’s silly, but in a really good way, which is a pretty accurate description for the production as a whole. It is, after all, a parody, and parodies work best when they’re self-aware.

Threepenny’s script is crammed with characters, and the cast here fills them well. Kasey, for example, is awkwardly lanky and naive, playing dumb to Mr. Peachum, cracking his voice, and providing a good laugh whenever he’s onstage. Arrison is a bit of a wild woman, raging around the stage with a strength that makes it clear why even Mac would be a bit nuts for her. Heiderman (disclosure: This writer used to work with her) possesses a powerful set of pipes and a comfortable ease onstage. And Arinoldo is a solid leading man, tall and slim in his crisp narrow suit and super smooth in a way that makes him seem like he should have a cigarette in his mouth all night.

Any qualms with the production will, one hopes, be solved by opening night. The use of only a synthesizer for the music was a bit of a letdown, but it turns out there will be live musicians, including a cello, acoustic guitar, and drum set. The lyrics in solos and duets were a bit hard to hear, and we get the feeling we might’ve missed a few plot points because of it, but in the performances, the actors will be mic-ed. And some of the more difficult scene changes—a quick flash from the Peachums’ shop to the wedding, which takes place in a garage, for example—weren’t pulled off so well, but that’s largely because a few finishing touches to the set were yet to be added. This is a promising production, one that will likely work well once everything’s come together. And it’s worth seeing if only to support a hard-working company and a new space that could be a wonder for the city’s art scene. There’s rumor of space heaters, but to be safe, bring a blanket.

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