The Beggar's Opera

By Vaclav Havel
Translated by Paul Wilson
Directed by Jonathan Silver
Invisible City Theatre Company
Manhattan Theatre Source
177 MacDougal Street (212/501-4751)
Equity showcase (closes Aug. 16)
Review by Jenny Sandman

Absurdity is the experience that something that has, should have, or could have aspired to meaning -- that is, something intrinsically human -- does not do so at all, or else has lost it. ... The outlines of general meaning can only be perceived from the bottom of absurdity. --Vaclav Havel

While most people now know Vaclav Havel as the president of the Czech Republic, he is an equally gifted playwright -- in fact, it was his reputation as a dissident playwright that got him elected. His canon of plays pioneered modern Eastern European theatre, and Martin Esslin described him as one of the century's premiere Absurdists (though Havel always resisted this label).

Power -- and the misuse of power -- are common themes in Havel's works, as might be expected from a (former) dissident. His plays are usually absurdist, Kafkaesque comedies satirizing both Communist bureaucracy and bureaucratic routine in general, exploring the ability of language to distort and deceive and break down human relationships. Another common motif is the absurdity of everyday life -- especially in a repressive, totalitarian system.

One of his later plays, The Beggar's Opera is an adaptation of John Gay's 1728 play of the same name. Brecht also adapted this play into The Threepenny Opera, which gave the world the song "Mack the Knife." In Havel's adaptation, The Beggar's Opera is film noir at its most melodramatic (and its most tongue-in-cheek). It is the story of the underworld, of two crime lords, Peachum and Macheath, battling it out for control. Peachum believes the way to power lies in cooperation with the police; Macheath, the consummate womanizer, would rather rule the old-fashioned way -- by manipulating his friends, rather than his enemies. Ironically, it doesn't matter whether the underworld bribes the police, because the police, embodied in Captain Lockit, are in turn manipulating the crime lords.

To add a further subplot, Peachum's daughter Polly is secretly married to Macheath. Peachum had pushed her into the relationship, hoping to use her as a spy against Macheath; but Macheath's wily charms proved too much for her, and she fell madly in love with him. Now she is spying on her father for Macheath's benefit. But Macheath is also married to at least one other woman -- Lockit's daughter -- and is cavorting with at least one other -- Jenny the whore, who betrays him. Oh, what a tangled web we weave.

It's terribly complicated, and terribly funny, and terribly prescient. It's almost farcical -- everyone is double-crossing everyone else -- and would be, were it not for its pessimistic core. Power corrupts, after all. The acting was a bit over the top, but then, so is the play. The ensemble was very strong, especially Sean Dill as Peachum. But David Epstein as Macheath stole the show. They both embodied the slick sleaziness required of film-noir villains, but Epstein nailed his comic timing. Of course, he could not doubletalk the ladies so convincingly without some fine acting from the women, most notably Stacey Tomassone as Diana the madam; some of the funniest moments, perhaps not coincidentally, occured between the women.

Director Jonathan Silver did an excellent job of moving the large cast through the small but intimate theatre. The set design was provocatively simple; a square of Astroturf delineated the acting space, with a vaguely Magritte-like blue-sky backdrop with two doorways cut into it. A writing desk and a few chairs were the only set pieces, but there was a bit much furniture manipulation between scenes for such a small space -- it slowed the pace considerably.

The lighting and sound effects were unfortunately not up to the overall production standard, but that didn't matter. The Beggar's Opera is a testament to the essential absurdity of life, and the production as a whole sparkled.

(Also with Maggie Bell, Ramon De Rosa, Elise E. Hedblom, Elizabeth Horn, Emily Howard, Jono Jarrett, Gerry Lehane, Ned Lynch, Christina Wollerman and Heather Wood.)

Box Score:

Writing: 2
Directing: 2
Acting: 2
Sets: 1
Costumes: 2
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2003 Jenny Sandman