nytheatre.com review by Ross Peabody
August 16, 2006
"Listen, nobody likes to be messed with, but why get your hands dirty when we've got urchins aplenty whose hands already are?"
So states Josiah K. Peachum in the full-page ad for the fictional "Pick a Pauper Project" in the program for Imminent, Indeed (or Polly Peachum's Peculiar Penchant for Plosives), Aisling Arts' sharp and whimsical adaptation of The Beggar's Opera. The ad, the program itself ("Thrillingly! Chillingly! Heathenly! Performed by the Aisling Arts Ensemble"), and the ensemble's crass (and fun) welcome as they usher you about on your entrance into the Actor's Playhouse all set the stage for exactly the experience that one can only assume writer/director Bryn Manion and her Aisling Arts collaborators intend you to have, and, happily, deliver.
Imminent, Indeed is a very loose adaptation of the original. Mathematically brilliant, but kept sheltered from the world by her rich and stingy shopkeeper brother, Polly Peachum has spent her entire life playing with numbers and doing her brother's books. Seduced by one Mr. Henry MacHeath, who marries her into a world of urchins, criminals, and prostitutes, Polly navigates the questionable moral and social pitfalls of life in the slums and on the docks and manages to find true love while proving that intelligence, wit, and a strong moral compass can overcome the turpitude of the streets as well as the ethical vacuum of the upper class.
The story, however, takes a backseat to Manion's talents as both wordsmith and director. Supported by a talented ensemble, Manion's script is snappy and smart. She has an instinct for turning a phrase that impresses around every corner. Her actors manage to play it splendidly, but the text is so chock full of clever jokes, poignant observations and good old-fashioned wordplay that, unless you're paying extraordinarily close attention, it's unlikely that you'll catch it all. As a director, her eye is just as keen. Manion uses every ounce of space in the theatre, and her stage pictures, especially when accentuated by her visual concepts (Polly has never sat in a chair until she meets MacHeath, having been chained to her brother's shop by a bolt of sleek, pink silk) are just keenly exciting to watch.
The physical work present onstage is also a great example of clear collaboration between director and ensemble. The five "dolls" that comment on and react to the stage action, while also announcing the "commercial breaks" in the action are pure fun to watch and, as played by Katherine Geller, Karen Grenke, Heather Helton, Natalie Pero, and Liza Pross, sometimes creepy, often striking, and occasionally unexpectedly funny. Christiane Amorosia's Polly is sweet but cunning, and she executes Manion's direction with a subtle finesse. Noteworthy, as well, are Heather Rogers and Catherine Wronowski as the comic Snatch Sisters, as they bleat around the stage one part dumb pair of sidekicks, and one part mischievous (and hilarious) troublemakers.
In it's original version and in subsequent adaptations (most notably Threepenny Opera by Bertolt Brecht and Vaclav Havel's 1975 adaptation), The Beggar's Opera has been recognized as an ideal vehicle for scathing social satire and political commentary. Aisling Arts has chosen to put itself squarely in the middle of that discourse by taking a look at the events of the play from a feminine perspective. It's an interesting take and even if the play doesn't entirely enter the arena of some of its better known forebears, it makes for smart and lively theatre, not to mention an excellent opportunity for Manion to unlimber her far from inconsiderable arsenal of tricks and showcase her talent for theatricality for, I hope, a very wide audience.