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March 30, 2007

Mack the Knife's "Opera"

Roy Meachum

Tucked away in Frederick's former grand hotel, the Maryland Ensemble Theatre is presenting an unconventional cast in an unconventional production of a highly unconventional theatrical work.

"The Threepenny Opera" is most famous for "Mack the Knife." But the hit song, recorded by Louis Armstrong, Bobby Darrin and a host of others, well, that was a last-minute addition to the show's 1928 debut. As such it was stuck between the overture and the story and rendered by a "street singer."

In shaping the West Patrick Street production, Director Julie Herber assigned "Mack" to Jenny Diver, portrayed by Karen Paone. Her dynamic voice and highly intelligent reading of the lyrics combine to produce the most powerful rendering of the song I've ever heard.

Yes, more powerful than Mr. Darrin's and Mr. Armstrong's, which was recorded with the original Jenny, Lotte Lenya, in the studio.

In being faithful to the original concept, Ms. Herber has assembled a group of players that have altered their appearances, becoming singularly odious beggars and asexual prostitutes, known as whores.

No characters on the stage, as characters, present any redeeming traits. They are what they are: denizens of London's underworld in the early 19th century.

As you may know, Englishman John Gay turned out "Beggars Opera." It premiered in 1728, exactly 200 years before Berlin first saw Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's translation and adaptation. Their "Threepenny" moved the show to the time of William IV's coronation; he was the king who directly preceded Victoria on the throne.

Britain during that era was notorious for its treatment of the poor and destitute; more vile on that score than France and Italy? I can't say. William Hogarth's prints, including Gin Alley, publicized life on the streets in London about the time "Beggar's" bowed.

But conditions were so bad on early-19th century streets of London and other English cities that William IV proclaimed a law reforming the treatment of the poor. "The Threepenny Opera's" chronological setting makes eminently good sense.

Our country's principal comparable period was during the depths of the Great Depression when millions of people, including babies, went to sleep hungry - when they could sleep. The lack of hope bred gangsters who popped up by the score. The same thing happened for the same reason in England and during the reign of the Weimar Republic in Germany - "Threepenny's" debut years.

MET offers no posh snob on stage; the costumes, choreography and direction emphasize these are outlaws who are completely out with the law and the world. Individual performances invoke empathy, made easier because the characters are badly dressed and atrociously made up.

James Garland's Tiger Brown may be the singular exception; he's merely a corrupt official, giving to look the other way for his old Army buddy, MacHeath.

Jeff Goeller repays Director Herber casting him in the "lead" by taking over the second act and virtually making it his character's own. Before the intermission it seemed to me that MacHeath came and went, singing songs that set up the plot and the show's surprising ending.

The work was produced during the spell when all theatrical pieces had at least three acts; so it was necessary to repeat material to keep the audience in the loop, so to speak. The large cast acts as messengers, especially the Peachum family.

Father Ted Janes is the beggars' fence; Ann Easton's Polly Peachum marries MacHeath over mother (Marissa Gastelle) Peachum's objections, which rapidly turn to vengeful hate.

"The Threepenny Opera" will not send you into the night feeling warm and snuggly; it's not that kind of show. It was created to irritate people into thinking. It succeeded with me, as I'll explain Tuesday on - but don't wait for that column.

Director Julie Herber's unconventional production appears these next few days and every weekend until April 28. The MET's home is in the basement of the old Francis Scott Key Hotel. Tickets are reasonable and the evenings on West Patrick are extraordinary.

Perhaps in signing off I should explain "unconventional production."

In the 1928 original - and virtually every show since - "MacHeath the Knife" is performed by a man; here it's entrusted to Karen Paone's glorious voice. Furthermore, as I said, the song usually opens "The Threepenny Opera."

But Ms. Herber held it until the evening's intermission. Its repositioning worked but left me mildly at sea, looking for the spine in the first act. That situation should iron out as the play dates unroll.

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