Edgy interdisciplinary production of “The Beggar’s Opera” rocks York University

Why are the laws levelled at us? Are we more dishonest than the rest? – The Beggar’s Opera

At its London premiere in 1728, John Gay’s rollicking Beggar’s Opera caused a sensation. Lampooning the politics and public morality of the day, it became an instant hit.

Image of three actors from the Beggar's Opera
From left: Lincoln Fields inmate, prostitute Jenny Diver (Kaya Bucholc), the jailer’s daughter, Lucy Lockit (Kaili Kinnon), and her rival in love, Polly Peachum (Alison Campbell)

York University’s Faculty of Fine Arts brings together professional and emerging talent in theatre, music, dance and digital media in an edgy new interpretation of this satirical masterpiece. Adapted and directed by theatre Professor Gwen Dobie, Theatre @ York’s bold, collaborative production of The Beggar’s Opera runs Jan. 28 to Feb. 1 in the Sandra Faire & Ivan Fecan Theatre at York’s Keele campus.

The story unfolds as a “play within a play” with a decidedly modern vibe, bringing the audience into the action. The show transforms the theatre into the Lincoln Fields Correctional Institute, where visitors are subjected to 21st century surveillance measures to witness the ‘inmates’ performing within.

Well-known television host Pamela Parker reports live from Lincoln Fields, a medium-security prison for men and women in present-day Toronto. She’s researching a story on the workings of the criminal justice system – in particular, the effectiveness of incarceration and the programs available to inmates to help them reintegrate into society once they’re released.

Image of the prison warden starring through bars into a prison cell
The prison warden, Beckett Benjamin Graff (Andrei Borissenko)

The facility is run by the socially progressive prison warden Beckett Benjamin Graff, a lover of theatre who believes in the therapeutic power of the arts. Graff decides that the gang members, prostitutes, con artists and thieves serving their time at Lincoln Fields will benefit from the opportunity to put on a play that mirrors their plight: a play about the social ills, human failings and moral choices that have put them behind bars. The inmates have volunteered to design and perform a production of The Beggar’s Opera.

The story revolves around the love triangle between the thief Macheath, Polly Peachum, the sheltered daughter of Macheath’s fence, Mr. Peachum, and Lucy Lockit, the jailer’s daughter. It’s also a tale of corruption, social inequality, and malfeasance in high and low places. Thieves, gangsters, politicians, lawyers … who can tell them apart?

Director Gwen Dobie’s approach to the production is grounded in the concluding sentence of Gay’s play: The lower sort of people have their vices as well as the rich, but the poor are always punished for them.

“I considered The Beggar’s Opera in relation to our 21st century world,” said Dobie. “Is it just a period piece, a quaint relic of a rougher, tougher time? To find out, I researched the issues it deals with – politics and the law, poverty and social inequality, executions, body-snatching and dissections, financial crimes, embezzlement and stock market manipulation – in our time.

York theatre Professor Gwen Dobie
Gwen Dobie

“And of course, all these things – even body-snatching! – are still with us today,” said Dobie. “It’s apparent that since John Gay set quill to paper, the social ills he writes about haven’t been resolved. Issues of poverty, inequality and social justice remain at the forefront of our society.”

Dobie teaches movement for actors and devised theatre in York’s Department of Theatre. She is the co-founder and co-artistic director of Out of the Box Productions, a performance fusion company that creates original works integrating drama, dance and opera. Her directing credits with Out of the Box include Opera Erotique, which toured in BC and was remounted in Toronto; Sound in Silence at the  Belfry Theatre in Victoria, BC and the Theatre Centre in Toronto; and Bugzzz ~ A Cautionary Tale at Toronto’s Wychwood Theatre. Other directing credits include the North American premiere of the Danish opera On this Planet by Anders Nordentoft and the world premiere of Canadian composer Christopher Donison’s opera Eyes on the Mountain. Most recently, Dobie directed York University’s well-received production of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and Handel’s oratorio Solomon, conducted by Stephanie Martin, for Toronto’s Pax Christi Chorale.

Musical direction for Theatre @ York’s Beggar’s Opera is by York music professor, choral composer and conductor Stephanie Martin, with musical preparation by mezzo soprano Catherine Robbin, head of York’s classical vocal music program. The singing cast features students in the Faculty of Fine Arts’ performance programs, with live accompaniment by a chamber orchestra of music students led by alumnus Floydd Ricketts (BFA 2013).

The Beggar's Opera characters Macheath and Peachum's servant
Macheath (Emilio Vieira) and Filch, Peachum’s servant (Jonathon LeRose)

Supporting the action are six members of the York Dance Ensemble, the Dance Department’s pre-professional repertory company, performing original choreography by theatre Professor Michael Greyeyes. Digital media creative production is headed by interdisciplinary media artist Don Sinclair, coordinator of the Digital Media Program in the Faculty of Fine Arts. Theatre professor James McKernan, a specialist in sustainable theatrical scenographic technologies, is the producer.

A talented team of undergraduate theatre students is handling all aspects of the production design and execution, from sets and costumes to sound and lighting design. Live and pre-recorded audio and visual projections devised by York’s rising young digital media artists create an immersive environment where the audience’s every move is tracked by the watchful eye of security cameras and controlled by disapproving prison guards.

The Beggar’s Opera previews Tuesday, Jan. 28, opens Wednesday, Jan. 29 and runs daily to Sat. Feb. 1. Showtime is 7:30pm Jan. 28-31, with matinees at 1pm on Friday, Jan. 31 and Sat. Feb. 1. General admission is $17 and $12 for students and seniors, with special rates for the preview performance and groups. Tickets may be purchased through the Fine Arts Box Office.

For more information about the production, cast and creative team, location and tickets, visit The Beggar’s Opera website.