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The Beggar’s Opera
The Beggar's Opera, John Gay's classic musical farce, received its premiere in London in 1764. Famously utilized as source material by Brecht and Weill for The Threepenny Opera, the play has also been adapted by Czech playwright-dissident-president Vaclav Havel. First performed secretly in a meeting hall outside Prague in 1976, Havel's adaptation was finally published in an English translation by Paul Wilson in 2001. This year, that version receives both its British and American premieres, the latter courtesy of Invisible City Theatre Company.

This company's work last winter with Shelagh Stephenson's Memory of Water was quite confident for a young group. And while Invisible City still lacks professional polish, and must contend with the smallest of budgets, the atmosphere of make-do props and production values contributes here to the feeling of forbidden material being performed. Moments in the production drag, especially in the second half, and the cast at times appears under-rehearsed. But Johnathan Silver's direction has its moments of inspiration, exampled in the performances of Sean Dill as Peachum, Stacey Tomassone as Diana, and David Lawrence Epstein as Macheath.

In this Beggar's Opera, there is no beggar, yet every character begs and cajoles to survive, and gain position. Peachum is a crook whose arrangement as a fence for stolen goods and informant to Police Chief Lockit (Gerry Lehane) offers him a cushy lifestyle, until Macheath arrives as new bad guy on the block. Peachum and Lockit use Macheath's womanizing against him, plying the rogue criminal with feminine temptations, including Peachum's offer of his daughter Polly (Maggie Bell) to Macheath, hoping she will function as a mole.

Of course, everything backfires in multiple ways, double and triple crosses are rampant, as we see that the honor-among-thieves code which Macheath's renegade approach violated upsets the delicate balance of the underworld. Robbers must honor cops with a cut of the profits, and cops must honor robbers with respect for their territory. This much even children grasp, and subtlety remains secondary here to broad farce. The black humor in Havel's version of Filch (Jono Jarett), a thief whose dedication to the principle of honor among thieves is absolute, becomes the most savory piece of irony in the whole show.

The relevance of this story to a totalitarian country which operated on graft, like Communist Czechoslovakia, is clear. Also, with severe limits on free speech, Czech audiences in the 1970s were accustomed to following subtext in literature and theater. The relevance of Havel's message to corruption in America, which is still viewed as exceptional rather than endemic, might be harder for some to grasp. Here, corporate criminals do not bribe outright, they contribute to campaigns; Enron's top guy gets what he wants and never goes to jail. Likewise, average citizens pay no extortion to a party boss or police chief, just higher electric bills while suffering power outages. They even vote to recall the governor who demanded an energy racketeering investigation. What does one do in such a country, as a theater artist? East German Playwright Heiner Muller, who lived in America for several years, saliently warned that the most dangerous audience is the audience which considers itself innocent.

For Havel's part, this adaptation strips out the songs of the original, and reshapes other elements, while leaving the setting in 18th century London. This does not necessarily improve things altogether -- the script's longer speeches can be leaden -- but the whole is worth producing for canonical reasons, and is quite watchable when directed with the right touch. That touch is sometimes present in this production, and when it's not we don't suffer excessively. As the seductress Jenny, Elizabeth Horn deserves special mention for her vampy turn, so distinct from her previous roles in Invisible City productions.

Havel's idealism resonates more deeply in this country than does his sardonic bitterness, so his work is more often produced in small venues by the young. One day, we might not just see Havel's plays deemed relevant enough for premieres on major stages here, but widely appreciated. In the meantime, Invisible City possesses the idealism and energy to tackle this Beggar's Opera, and make it enjoyable. The vision of their unbroken spirits diving into this nihilistic romp is spectacle enough.

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