'The Threepenny Opera' showcases Arts Center’s desire to expand reputation
If all you think of is “theater for young people” when you think of the Lawrence Arts Center, you don’t know the whole story.
“Our reputation is youth theater and family-friendly shows,” says the Arts Center’s Performing Arts Artistic Director Ric Averill. “We want to be known as an artist-based theater.”
Averill certainly understands the reputation the Arts Center has earned. Several generations of children have passed through the Summer Youth Theater program. This past summer, 90 kids participated in the “The Wizard of Oz” and 75 in “Cinderella, or How Pipsqueak the Mouse became a Stallion” – the two productions for elementary-school-aged students. There were also productions of “You Can’t Take It with You” and “Cabaret” for high schoolers.
For the past three years, the Arts Center has staged family-oriented musicals “Oliver,” “The Music Man,” and “Willie Wonka.” But Averill has a bigger vision.
“The goal is to become a leading arts space,” he says. “We want to do things other theaters aren’t doing.”
That’s one of the things that led him to choosing to stage “The Threepenny Opera,” which opens tonight and runs two weekends. Bertolt Brecht’s classic musical is about as different from the sweet production of “Wonka” Averill directed earlier this year as possible. The show tells the story of the fall of notorious criminal, MacHeath, who is betrayed when he overreaches by marrying the daughter of J.J. Peachum, a criminal mastermind himself, who forces all the beggars in London to work for him and pay tribute. The ensemble cast is made up of beggars, thieves, and whores, and, while Brecht paints these poor unfortunates as victims of society, he doesn’t make any of them sympathetic. They are all, in their own ways, bad people.
“Brecht rejected empathy,” Averill says. “He gives us unsympathetic characters so we won’t be distracted. We’re able to hear what the characters have to say, because we don’t feel sorry for them.”
And Brecht has a lot to say in “Threepenny.” In keeping with his vision for an artistic theater, Averill deliberately chose the play to run during an election year.
“People will enjoy 'The Threepenny Opera’ because it’s classical theater,” he says. “But it is also a cry from Brecht to understand the plight of the poor, and that’s been very topical in the past year or so.
“The show transcends its time, and it transcends politics. As people watch it, it asks, ‘Has the world changed since Brecht wrote his beggars’ opera?’”
An ambitious undertaking like “Threepenny” necessitates a talented cast. To get it, Averill brought in professional actors. Three Equity actors – Seth Golay as MacHeath, Jim Korinke as Peachum, and Breanna Pine as Peachum’s daughter Polly – join a group of Lawrencians Averill has worked with on various productions in the past. In fact, he’s worked with the Equity people before too, having directed Golay in Kansas City in “Stuart Little” and Pine when she was in Summer Youth Theater at the Arts Center as a young woman (she went on to work professionally in New York and now Los Angeles). As for Korinke:
“I met him auditioning for commercials,” Averill says. “We’re often in competition, because we’re around the same age. He usually wins.”
Marrying out-of-town professionals with local talent is one of Averill’s long-term goals too.
“We want to capitalize on the artistic excellence there is in Lawrence and bring in excellent visiting artists at the same time,” he says. “The more opportunities for actors, the better.”
“The Threepenny Opera” runs October 19, 20, 21, 26, 27, and 28. Curtain is at 7:30pm on Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:00pm. The show is recommended for audiences 18 and older. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 785-843-2787 or online at lawrenceartscenter.org.
Disclosure: The author is a member of the cast of “The Threepenny Opera.”