The Globe and Mail's review:
Brecht that doesn't come cheap
By KATE TAYLOR
Friday, May 31, 2002 – Print Edition, Page R2
The airy renovation of the Stratford Festival's Avon Theatre was not quite ready in time for Wednesday's opening night. In the spacious new lobby, stairs and walls that will soon be covered in granite and metallic cladding were still exposed, a little reminder of the raw structure behind the showmanship.
In the auditorium, all freshly painted and newly upholstered, some rather similar reminders were in place, as actor Stephen Ouimette made his Stratford directing debut with a Threepenny Opera stuffed full of the Brechtian devices that are supposed to get an audience thinking instead of empathizing.
The show opened with a disruption in the audience as a very obvious plant (that's Thom Allison underneath the street person's rags) swore his way up onto the stage, before delivering a throwaway version of Mack the Knife, the song with which dramatist Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill began their 1928 musical. It's a brave dismissal of the crowd-pleaser that remains Weill's greatest hit, but Ouimette has placed the antidramatic vocal performance in an over-stagy setting.
After the stagehands and actors usher the disruptive man off-stage, the action begins underneath a large LED sign that prefaces each scene with some plot synopsis in flashing red letters. We are in the premises of Beggar's Big Brother, where the cynical J. J. Peachum (Peter Donaldson) and his drunken wife (Sheila McCarthy) outfit and license mendicants. Darned if the festival's props department haven't given the pair a million-dollar stock of canes, crutches and wooden legs along with costumes that do funny tricks. Stratford's big-budget instincts and Bertolt Brecht's alienation devices are butting heads here. Ouimette and music director Don Horsburgh offer a Threepenny Opera that is powerfully staged and sung, but often lacks the rawness that would really drive its messages home, despite Donaldson's best efforts spitting out anticapitalist tirades at the audience.
The people in Brecht's script merely flirt with full characterization; they are mainly dark cartoons and the cast, lead by Tom McCamus's delicious work in the role of murderous thief Macheath, capture that fully. With the sly smile of the master seducer, McCamus tries on his part like a disguise, repeatedly reminding us that he is a showman playing a showman. As the Peachums' daughter Polly, the girl he bigamously marries, Diana Coatsworth can't quite master that Brechtian trick, rendering her lines as flatly as though she were performing in the high-school play. It works well enough in this context; let's hope she doesn't try it anywhere else.
In the role of Macheath's henchman Matt, Shane Carty leads a fine band of thieves who, recognizing the American spin that dramatist Mark Blitzstein gave his 1952 English-language adaptation of the work, owe as much to gangster movies as they do to the supposedly Victorian setting.
Musically, Horsburgh and his orchestra offer a clear reading of Weill's score that neatly reveals the way in which the composer tries out pretty tunes only to defy the ear's easy expectations with detours and left turns. In this hard musical universe, McCamus's vocal work is satisfyingly muscular, far surpassing the last musical role he sang at Stratford in Camelot in 1997. But it is Blythe Wilson in the role of Macheath's paramour Lucy Brown, and Susan Gilmour's Jenny -- although her spoken performance emotionally muffles the whore's betrayal of Macheath -- who offer the show-stopping solos here.
It's a rich parade of talents that Ouimette has marshalled, and as they line up at the front of the stage to belt a tune in our faces, the effect is admirably tough-minded. And as they don white gloves to do a mocking little mime routine with their hands poking through the bars of Macheath's jail cell, Ouimette successfully deconstructs the very entertainment he is providing. Yet, as the show concludes with the deus ex machina who is the Queen's messenger making his entrance on a massive levitating tower draped in the Union Jack, the results are needlessly showy. Stratford's commercial instincts versus Brecht's anticapitalist message? It's a draw.
The Threepenny Opera continues at the Avon Theatre in Stratford, Ont., to Nov. 2. For information call: 1-800-567-1600.