Whether or not you walk away from The Beggar’s Opera as a satisfied customer depends entirely on what you expect to get out of the two-hour production. Of the packed house that attended the opening of College of Charleston’s latest mainstage production, adapted in 1975 from the 17th-century ballad opera by John Gay into a non-operatic absurdist piece by Czech writer and former president Vaclav Havel, those who attended with an open mind towards the avant-garde and a respect for the young, growing (sometimes awkwardly), and emerging talent in this town were satisfied. Others may want to look elsewhere.
Don’t get me wrong; Beggar’s Opera is not a bad play. It is also not an opera (as the posters and program remind us). The plot is a tad convoluted, a wild and unruly hodgepodge of backstabbing, proclamations of love, political dealings, civil disobedience, family troubles, marital stumbles, and prostitution — whew. Simply put, it is the story of two crime bosses, Peachum and Macheath (played impressively by Matthias Burrell and Storm Smith respectively), who have rival gangs of thieves in a society where moral corruption is a social standard. Husbands are expected, even encouraged by their wives, to have affairs, and the honest crook is the lowest guy on the totem pole.
I won’t try to tell you any more than that, because none of it matters. This is absurdist theater, and the message here is far more important than the plot. Beggar’s Opera shines in this regard by giving a view of a ridiculous society that far too often mirrors our own. Back-room deals that turn out to benefit everyone and no one all at once could be compared to our own financial institutions (Wall Street or healthcare anyone?), and the idea of marital scandal being best for business leaves too many examples to point out in our society of sex-tape career boosts and reality-show redemptions.
Mark Landis puts together a very tight production with his usual stable of relatively unknown students ready to show the Charleston community just what they’re capable of. Some shine brighter than others. Both Burrell and Smith give very solid performances. Smith’s Macheath is a Mad Men-style stereotype grounded in enough reality to make his falsified love arias land in even the staunchest hearts. Burrell and Liza Fluery, who plays his wife, are both excellent in committing to a level of exaggerated character performance reserved only for the absurdist theater. Another standout is Lucy McNerney, who gives a confident performance as a brothel owner not afraid to strut her stuff (which she does in what is hands down the show’s only standout costume).
Landis also gives the world more depth with his excellent use of scene changes. While stagehands move set pieces on and off , silent scenes are enacted (under exceptional lighting design by John Olbrych), which help flesh out the world of small-time crooks whose lives are affected by the actions of our big-time bosses. Charlie Calvert’s scene design is layered well, colorful and outspoken for interior homes, dull and drab for the outside world around them. And what a world it is. The Beggar’s Opera has one of the largest casts of any CofC production I’ve seen since Cabaret.
There is a good time to be had at Beggar’s Opera. Laughs abound, from the cyclical and outrageous dialogue to the repeatedly hilarious sight gags. You will notice a great deal of repetition and won’t quite get where the plot is going, and you’ll often wonder if there is a point. If you miss it, that’s fine. It’s probably another lie anyway.