Tuesday, June 06, 2000

Troupe stumbles with production of 'Threepenny'

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Here is my dearest wish for next season: that established second-tier theaters and the sprouting third tier of would-be professional theaters will reconsider doing shows they can't cast.

        Do it for yourselves, do it for your audiences. If you don't do it for your audiences, pretty soon you won't have audiences.

        The problem has been widespread over the last couple of seasons: Know Theatre Tribe's stupefying A Streetcar Named Desire. Ensemble's incomprehensible miscasting of Side Man and Cripple of Inishmaan. Cincinnati Public having 11th-hour cancellations of The Birds and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. There are plenty of other examples.

        Most of these misfires happened quietly. I've walked away from reviewing because what's the point of beating a fledgling company when it's already down?

        But the small theater scene seems to be reaching a crisis point, best illustrated by the ambitious Stage First.

What's the point?
        This spring, the sophomore company, which specializes in world classics, presented a misbegotten Long Day's Journey into Night, unwatchable for anyone who loves the work of Eugene O'Neill.

        Barely months later, it's closing the season with Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera, clearly completely beyond the capacity of its ensemble to act, although the cast of 13 hit the right notes musically.

        And you have to ask: What's being accomplished? Who exactly are these companies doing these shows for — themselves or paying customers? (These do not have to be mutually exclusive answers, but too often they appear to be.)

        Threepenny Opera isa tongue-in-cheeky cabaret that uses “penny dreadfuls,” those horrid 19th-century novels of page-turning vice, romance and adventure as a jumping off point for a discussion of moral issues.

        It is indeed a world classic, with dapper bigamist bandit Macheath (Daniel Cooley) leading a band of amiably murderous cutthroats. He makes Polly Peachum (Leah Noel Barnes) his latest bride, much to the distress of her papa (Jim Stump), who makes his money by licensing an army of beggars around London.

        Mr. Peachum tries to persuade the police commissioner (John Vaughn) to get out of Macheath's back pocket. He might have better success if the commish were aware that his own daughter is among Macheath's fond wives. Or perhaps not.

        Most of the company is made up of Northern Kentucky University students and alums.

More college players
        Interestingly, we're seeing more and more college players around town. This fall, the new Actor's Rep in Middletown will have a lot of Wright State alums. The re-tooling Downtown Theatre Classics is promising to be a home to College-Conservatory of Music grads.

        The NKU kids haven't been showing to good effect, but the Stage First material is always difficult. It's impossible to guess how much progress they've made from first reading to opening night under director Nicholas Korn's coaching.

        Mr. Cooley gives you no idea why all these ladies are drooling over Macheath. His sidekicks are stiff as boards. Poor Ms. Barnes hasn't a clue who Polly is and while Stacy Searle could perhaps get away with just one expression as the woman who betrays Macheath, there needs to be a performance behind the purposefully sullen blankness.

        Among the show's saving graces is that once the cast starts singing, everyone seems much more in touch with his or her character (credit music director Allen Lindsey?). Mr. Stump, as usual, exactly grasps the bombastic style needed for Mr. Peachum and there's a nice performance from Sara Anderson in a trio of tiny roles including a beggar-in- training and a feeble minister.

        Ms. Anderson is the only performer who carries off Mr. Korn's decision to change some characters' genders. For the most part, all the decision does is pull our attention away from the action. Hmmmm. Maybe it's not such a bad idea.

        The Threepenny Opera, through Sunday. Stage First, Fifth Third Bank Theater, Aronoff Center for the Arts. 241-7469.


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