During Bertolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera - the German dramatist's revolutionary musical-comedy collaboration with composer Kurt Weill - we're meant to feel uneasy. With its cast of beggars and rogues, obliteration of the fourth wall, and refusal to cater to conventional audience expectation (the songs here, devoid of proper finales, don't so much finish as stop), The Threepenny Opera is a fascinating, deliberately alienating piece. Our enjoyment stems from how unconventional the show is, but in no traditional sense are we meant to simply like it.
So in regard to director Corinne Johnson's Depression-era Threepenny Opera that recently opened St. Ambrose University's 2006-7 theatre season at the Galvin Fine Arts Center (and closed on October 15), was it a failing or a blessing that so many of its performers were so damned likable?
I'm going with it being a blessing, mostly because, with only a few exceptions, the St. Ambrose cast wasn't actively touting their ingratiation or soliciting our approval - the performers were likable because of their talents.
This was especially true in the case of Sarah Catherine Ulloa's Lucy Brown, who showed up in Act II, tucked the show in her garter, and walked off with it. Ulloa revealed the kind of electric stage presence that causes an audience to perk up instantly; on Friday night, when she sang Lucy's "Barbara Song" with heartfelt emotion and perfect pitch, the Galvin crowd sat in a captivated hush. With little stage time to do it in, Ulloa's bitter, longing character emerged as the heroine of the piece (or at least as close as Threepenny Opera gets to having one).
Not that she didn't have competition for the title. Abby Van Gerpen portrayed the comically flighty Polly Peachum with an intriguing degree of self-awareness, and scored laughs by appearing to be only half the twitterbrain Polly presents herself as; newly married to rapist, thief, and killer Mack the Knife (Jock Kloppenborg), you never feared for her - this Polly could handle herself just fine. Claire Richards' Mrs. Peachum, meanwhile, was a blowzy blast. After her gently hilarious performance as Meg in last season's A Lie of the Mind at St. Ambrose, it was great fun watching this inventive comedienne ooze incredulous aggravation; Richards' Mrs. Peachum existed in a pissed-off, soused world that was all her own.
And the "hero" of this Threepenny Opera? Seth Kaltwasser's Mr. Peachum, so unapologetic in his opportunism that you had no choice but to adore him. Kaltwasser revealed a marvelous singing voice, but I particularly liked his vocal expressiveness when not singing. Barreling through his divinely condescending dialogue, the actor's line readings had wit and surprise, and he also proved physically clever; when Kaltwasser underlined Peachum's annoyance by beating his forehead with his fist, the moment was laugh-out-loud funny.
As for Kloppenborg, he probably came the closest to pulling off Threepenny's Brechtian style - Kloppenborg never asked for the audience's love. Revealing Mack's depravity with a heartless monotone and precise and economical in his movement, the actor was focused and professional, as those of us impressed by his sensational Urinetown and Lie of the Mind portrayals would expect. What was missing, though, was a sense of the character's reptilian charm. Kloppenborg was often so minimalist that he threatened to vanish, and it was difficult to determine what about him drew the devotion of so many women (and Jacob Kendall's police chief). He gave the rare performance that seemed right for the material but wrong for the space; Kloppenborg's expressionlessness would have been far creepier in a black-box setting than in Galvin.
Several elements of the show, in fact, would have benefited from being performed in a smaller venue (granted, an unlikely option). The continual popping of the body mics was a major distraction, and the singers were occasionally off beat with the orchestra, perhaps because the upstage musicians were positioned too far away to be heard clearly; Weill's score here sounded unusually tinny, and even a little dull.
And another, more intimate space might have helped guide a few performers toward more delicate turns; Kendall and Sean Tweedale, though lively, were too overtly "zany" for the subtle wit of Threepenny, and Emily Christiansen's feistiness as a newsboy - like a Greek-chorus Gavroche from Les Miz - was emptily energetic, and didn't jibe with the breathy head-voice of her "Mack the Knife" number.
Yet despite occasionally overwhelming the production, Galvin's space certainly had its perks - the better to appreciate Dianne Dye's delicious costumes, Aaron Hook's sprawling scenic design, Brad Frazee's superior lighting effects, and Johnson's ever-sharp staging; it's a testament to the director's clever composition and use of space that the show rarely felt too slight for its locale. St. Ambrose's Threepenny Opera may not have been as Brechtian as the material demanded, but, with apologies to its authors, there certainly was a lot to like.