Court Theatre

You can’t bury John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. Audiences need it in 1990 as much as they did in 1728. We need it as much as German audiences, sick of their own era’s venality, did 200 years later when it was updated by Brecht and Weill as The Threepenny Opera. It’s an expose to indict every generation.

Scholars may attribute the vast early popularity of The Beggar’s Opera, for which John Christopher Pepusch adapted 48 popular songs and a Handel march, to its savage spoof of Italianate opera, the musical pomposities that Handel popularized. And certainly 18th-century audiences savored the barbs slung at prime minister Sir Robert Walpole, the most prominent crook of his time, and his elaborately corrupt regime.

But Gay’s sinister entertainment succeeds because it cunningly dramatizes the great double standard: the world rewards the rich for committing the very crimes it penalizes the poor for. Or as Gay’s “most excellent moral” puts it: “The lower sort of people have their vices in a degree as well as the rich–and are punished for them.”

The vices Gay mocks may dress in conventional morality–he delights in showing whores and thieves arrogantly assuming the airs of middle-class gentility–but under their cant about virtue and honor lies rapacity. Gay also dramatizes another duplicitous standard: a man can err repeatedly and still preserve his marriageability, but a woman depreciates completely in one fall.

Given the growing disparity between rich and poor Americans, and our take-over and throw-away ethic, The Beggar’s Opera is our kind of show.

Once you know that everyone in the story has a price, the plot flows as naturally as a City Council meeting. In a world of vice, exploitation is the sole tie that binds. Peachum, a receiver of stolen goods, depends on Captain Macheath, a highwayman who is also adored by a scattered harem. Peachum learns his daughter Polly has fallen in love and, worse, into marriage with Macheath. He’s enraged that he can no longer use her in his business and that she married low. Worse than losing her virtue, she has lost her marketability.

Peachum gets his revenge and reward money by informing on Macheath–with help from Jenny Diver, Macheath’s favorite whore. Macheath is dragged off to Newgate prison, which is run by Peachum’s predatory ally Lockit. Lockit’s daughter Lucy, pregnant with Macheath’s child and desperate to believe his promises of fidelity, helps him escape. The recaptured Macheath is saved at the last minute from hanging when the opera’s beggar concocts a mock-heroic ending full of “poetical justice.” It would never do to let a noble hero die; and besides, the rich would have made him a prime minister, so why should the poor hang him?

The first entry in the third International Theatre Festival of Chicago, this Court Theatre revival is an unsparing Hogarth caricature. Richard Russell Ramos’s staging captures all but the smell of the 18th century, while Anita Ruth’s supple musical direction nicely suggests the country origins of the ballads Gay immortalized. Lit pitilessly then subtly by Rita Pietraszek, Jeff Bauer’s sprawling courtyard setting combines with his period-perfect costumes to create stage pictures you want to photograph.

Though they are as dedicated as the designers, the performers aren’t always as triumphant. Yet there is little here that is so wrong it can’t be fixed over a long run. Aside from inconsistent accents and pacing, the satire doesn’t yet have the edge, the hunger and anger the action requires. The production is dutiful–too much tells us this is a classic. And given a script this strong, there were too few laughs on opening night.

The singing and acting range from imposing to halfhearted. Blending a rich baritone with a striking stage presence, Steven F. Hall creates a dashing Macheath, but undermines his portrayal by appearing to have less fun and less fear than his character; he seems, for instance, remarkably unafraid of hanging. Sandy Borglum as Polly Peachum and Anna Gunn as Lucy Lockit sail into their duets with an artificial venom–the sparks seldom fly. Their musical moments with Macheath carry much more conviction.

In the most satirical roles, Robert Ousley’s Peachum and William McKereghan’s Lockit are Daumier-like caricatures of greed; Laurel Cronin, a brazenly amoral Mrs. Peachum, executes her songs (in more ways than one) but clearly conveys her character’s opportunism. Bruce Orendorf as the beggar offers an 18th-century version of Joel Grey’s slimy master of ceremonies; Denise duMaurier makes a drunken Mrs. Trapes a portrait of larceny.

The best moments are the strong ensemble’s choruses, including the gang’s infectiously hearty drinking song and the prostitutes’ anthem “Youth’s the season made for joys.” Though they’re too rare, such moments suggest the effortless crowd pleasing that will always be the stock-in-trade of this ballad opera.