Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2009

Off The Wall's 3Penny Opera

By Russ Bickerstaff
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The Off The Wall Theatre is painted almost completely black. Various phrases are scrawled in white all over the walls. As the audience files into the tiny space Annie Mater slinks about in character as streetwalker Suky Tawdry. A couple of apparent junkies stagger about in the shadows onstage. The usual sort of pre-show audience conversation is accompanied by actors slowly making it to stage in character to paint an image of urban decay. Yes, this is downtown Milwaukee, but this is the stage of Off The Wall Theatre on Wells St. The show running there now through March 1st is Off The Wall’s production of Brecht and Weil’s The 3penny Opera.

The show opens with Mary C. DeBattista’s rendition of the classic opening song introducing the character of Mack the Knife. DeBattista is no Ute Lemper, but she doesn’t have to be. The song is extremely durable and has the kind of emotion that can feed on many different kinds of performance. DeBattista summons the right kind of emotion for a memorable rendition of the song. To a certain extent, the rest of the Opera mirrors the durability of Mack the Knife. The Threepenny Opera can be staged pretty effectively anywhere with any kind of cast, so long as there is a certain amount of squalor and desperation brought to the stage. True to form, the Off the Wall production is a pleasantly imbalanced one. Brilliant performances mix with poor ones with an impressively diverse cast. A cast of professional musical theatre actors aren’t always able to bring across the feeling of squalor and decay, focusing as they often do on perfection and precision. Director Dale Gutzman has put together a moody cast that carries the show through interesting moments even when they’re not perfectly executed musically.

Jeremy Welter stars as a decaying Macheath. His appearance delivers just about everything we need to know about the production’s vision of the character. The urban contemporary squalor and decay that Gutzman has put into the production looks particularly interesting on Welter. The character is a legendary murderer and scoundrel who quite nearly gets executed thanks to his own carelessness. A lean, sinewy precise execution of the role doesn’t really fit the plot. Welter isn’t afraid to show a soft, slovenly side of the character. He’s scruffy and frazzled—a bit soft and bloated. Through Welter, the contemporary portrayal of the character of Macheath wears his hair in a lazy fauxhawk that might’ve once been a full-blown mohawk. He flashes around a single knife that hardly seems the kind of thing that would be all that effective for Mack the Knife. We see a fading shadow of someone who might’ve once been able to brutally murder and get away with it. While very entertaining Welter’s performance fails to capture the kind of brilliance it could have. It may be well-executed, but Welter’s going through the motions here, not really exploring the full dark side of the character. Only in his final two songs Call From the Grave and All Men’s Forgiveness does Welter approach the kind of vulnerability that makes the character compelling and by then it’s too late. If this is intended, it’s clever, but not particularly satisfying.

Other notable performances include Liz Mistele as Mack’s wife Polly Peachum and David Flores as her father. We’re first introduced to Mr. Peachum in a series of scenes that establish him as the leader of the beggar’s guild in London. I addition to having a powerful singing voice, Flores plays the character’s sinister wit and wisdom with compelling realism. He gives particular flair to a conversation between him and a young upstart at the beginning of the show. Nate Press capably plays a young beggar named Filch who has been begging without the consent of the guild as he is confronted by Flores as Peachum. It’s one of the best exchanges in the show. Flores is similarly impressive given the opportunity to confront his daughter on her obsession with Mack. Mistele’s soldering defiance is matched by Flores’ ire as her father. Marylin White capably adds to the scene in the role of her mother. The interaction between the three of them in that one flash of brilliance is the single most impressive scene in the production. Mistele puts in a typically dazzling performance, peaking most notably in a breathtakingly otherworldly performance of Pirate Jenny in the first act. The best musical bit of the show, however, would have to be the cast’s performance of The Army Song later on in the same act. The catch percussion of the song irresistibly reverberates through the tiny space with an electricity the rest of the production’s music never quite manages to attain.

Off the Wall’s production of The Threepenny Opera runs through March 1stat Off The Wall Theatre on 127 East Wells. As of this writing, there are still seats available for the 25th, the 26th and the 27th.

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