The Threepenny Opera is a Marxist morality play about the London underworld—and a famous murderer named Mack the Knife—written by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. It has been translated into dozens of languages and performed tens of thousands of times. But you wouldn't know why based on the current production by Seattle Shakespeare Company, directed by Stephanie Shine and performed at Intiman. This Opera is soft and soporific, suffering from the same problem that plagued The Lieutenant of Inishmore, directed by Kurt Beattie at ACT last October. Both shows began with good text and good actors, but resulted in total nothingness onstage. Why? Poor direction from people who should know better.
Pretty much every actor onstage—from Julie Briskman (who scored as Ann Landers in The Lady with All the Answers) to Russell Hodgkinson (whose performance as an inveterate drunk in The Seafarer still haunts my memory)—has done excellent work elsewhere. But under the direction of Shine, they are reduced to impotent clowns. None of them seems capable of kicking a cat, much less killing a man. (Full disclosure: I left partway through. I had some actual criminals I wanted to hang out with.)
A note to artistic directors of a certain age: If you're thinking of making a show about murderers and thieves, you must give your show tight pacing, urgency, and moments of real fear to keep your audience worried. That way, the humor and political messages will actually smack your audience instead of washing over us like so much warm mush. Plus: I realize you're trying to save money by directing your own shows instead of hiring outsiders. But if you're going to produce shows about crime and desperation, you would do much better for your theaters by shoving a cut of your paycheck toward a younger director who has a leaner mind and a sharper knife. Remember (for example) Crime and Punishment and Electra directed by Sheila Daniels? Or The Adding Machine and Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet directed by John Langs? Those were shows about murder that had ideas and driving, vital, frightening force—not the fusty feeling of a director just pushing actors around the stage out of habit.
If you cannot hold our attention, you have lost the game.
NewsWrights United is bringing a new theatrical-journalism project to Capitol Hill's Erickson Theater this weekend. Founded by Stranger Genius Paul Mullin, talented writer-director Dawson Nichols, and former Seattle Post-Intelligencer science journalist Tom Paulson, NewsWrights wrote an entertaining and cutting "living newspaper" play about the fall of one of Seattle's dailies called It's Not in the P-I. This time, they've put together The New New News—about the rise of local blogs, how the Seattle Times got a Pulitzer Prize for its readers' Twitter coverage of the Maurice Clemmons manhunt, and what happened to Art Thiel when he started his own blog and had to get tangled with selling his own ads. Judging by their last effort and the seriousness of their material, The New New News should be scarier than the ersatz Mack the Knife.
Also in previews: Some poor fools think C. S. Lewis was good only for children's books about Narnia. But the man had scorching-hot insight into what it means to be a grown-up. His Screwtape Letters, dedicated to J.R.R. Tolkien, should be required reading in all American high schools. In it, a devil advises an underling on how to tempt a man down to hell. No matter what you think about Lewis's Anglicanism, The Screwtape Letters contains some of the most horrifyingly accurate sentences about human frailty: "The safest road to hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts," "All mortals tend to turn into the thing they are pretending to be." This celebrated adaptation of the Letters by Jeffrey Fiske and Max McLean probably contains good performances, if you trust the New York Times critics. But it will certainly contain excellent, harrowing text.
This article has been updated since its original publication.