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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Financial Predators

Theater Review

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John Gay's The Beggar's Opera has received numerous updates. Theatre Gigante's version of the 18th-century operetta, which ran this weekend at the Off-Broadway Theatre, provides up-to-the-minute comedic commentary on the hubris underlying our current economic downfall. Unlike the original, the financial predators in Theatre Gigante's production don't belong to a shady criminal underclass. Instead they're lawless finance brokers preying on other people's wealth. Open references to Bernie Madoff are to this plot what veiled allusions to British Prime Minister Robert Walpole were to the original, only here it's understood that he's taking one for the boys so they can continue their exploits under the nose of the law.

The production is a play within a play, staged as a rehearsal by a small theater company with big ideas. The struggles of a small arts nonprofit are held up against the failings of the investment world. The dialogue is replete with inside jokes about the financial world and local theater: The producers lament the priority given to the city's larger arts companies; the bowlegged Peachum (played by Tom Bruno) bores his peers witless with his droning explanation of finance structures. The details are mercifully drowned out by Dan Dance's piano playing.

Throughout the production extraneous cast members lounge around on easy chairs in view of the audience, a lurking (if pleasantly engaged) shadow of redundancy that might serve as a veiled criticism of the under-used talent of our acting community (despite the obvious abundance of actors, especially one potential ingénue who spends almost the entire production absorbed in a newspaper, the fictional producers of the opera are forced to cast a cardboard cutout in the role of Polly. An allusion to the mismanagement of funds?).

Jason Powell milks his cardboard Polly for all her comic worth. Dan Mooney lends Macheath a world-weary appeal. The music and lyrics make few demands of the cast, and most of the weight is placed on the capable shoulders of Leslie Fitzwater. The songs are pleasant and forgettable, drawing on popular phrases like "don't hate the player, hate the game." The latter, sung by Peachum and his wife (Fitzwater) when they decide to turn over Macheath, is shrewdly double-edged. It exonerates Macheath and at the same time justifies their betrayal of him.

Ultimately this undeceived duplicity finds its natural conclusion in the producers' decision to sell out to the black-suited emissary from a wealthy foundation (Mark Bucher). However, while in Gay's opera the villain was left unpunished to appease popular taste, here the reverse takes place to appease a wealthy donor. What better illustration of conflicting public and private interests?

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