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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Loud Take on 'Beggar's Opera'

In "No Holds Barred!" at the Ruben Simonov Theater, Alexander Gorban has, to some extent, taken on the role of Bertolt Brecht.

Brecht, as is well known, was one of the most accomplished literary pickpockets of the 20th century. He stole from everybody he could, from the dead and from the living, and became quite respected for doing so.

His most popular heist was in taking "The Beggar's Opera," originally written in 1728 by librettist John Gay and composer John Pepusch, and, by making a few key changes, creating "The Threepenny Opera." With significant uncredited help from his girlfriend of the time and deservedly acclaimed assistance from composer Kurt Weill who wrote great new songs for the piece, Brecht gave a 20th-century, Roaring-20s twist to the romanticized story of thieves and thugs and made it a classic.

Gorban also took Gay's original libretto focusing on the adventures of the crook Macheath, put it to new music and adapted it to local customs.

I can imagine this sounded like a good idea in the planning stages.

After all, only the lazy in the 1990s have not compared modern Moscow to Sicily or gangsterland Chicago. We are living in the Wild East, aren't we? But, as Gorban's play shows, the Wild East can be boring too.

The setting of "No Holds Barred!" is still London, but the whole wild cast of characters has roots in Odessa. Throughout the show they repeatedly call home to Odessa to tell the folks they left behind about their latest escapades. The name of Macheath's right-hand man Ben Proidokha - that is, Ben Rapscallion (Arkady Pyatnitsky) - can't help but evoke memories of Isaac Babel's legendary Odessite Benya Krik.

But most important in the London-Odessa connection is the music. For three hours, nearly without respite, we are assaulted by the monotonous beat of that dubious Odessa export: "blatnaya" music, or, if you will, prison pop. Everybody knows this abomination inflicted by almost every Moscow taxi driver on his passengers. It has one rhythm, one melody and, say, three themes: prostitutes, prisons and - grunt, grunt - manhood. Usually, all three are comfortably squashed into each song.

Like cockroaches - to continue the metaphor of squashing - there are a million of these songs, none of which can be distinguished from each other except in size. Some are longer, some are shorter.

Essentially, "No Holds Barred!" is a concert. Indeed, the performance is accompanied by the Green Square jazz band. It's a shame only that the able group doesn't show a little independence and break into a bit of jazz once in a while. One can get bruises listening to such dull-thudding prison pop for so long without a break.

The minimal spoken text is there only to push forward the bare plot.

Macheath (Igor Kartashov) marries Polly Peachum (Marina Yerisova) who is the daughter of Mack's rival crook Mrs. Peachum (Alla Mironova). In order to get rid of Macheath, Mrs. Peachum finds a way to force constable Lockit (Igor Vorobyov) to arrest Mack, even though the two men are the best of friends. Lockit's daughter Lucy (Yelena Doronina), who has had her eye on Mack, is furious when she learns that he married Polly. She will resort to anything to take over Polly's position as Mack's wife.

That is the hanger this show hangs on. Its fabric, shape and style, such as they are, come from the music. As I say, it consists of wall-to-wall songs about prostitutes, murder, prison and drunks. For a semblance of diversity, a farcical scene is thrown in from "Romeo and Juliet." Thereafter, a stray character from Shakespeare's play occasionally wanders through or someone will quote from "Hamlet." The rare musical variation includes an Italian aria and a tango, "Nighttime Marseilles," a semi-classic of the Moscow music hall written in the early 1920s by composer Yury Milyutin and playwright Nikolai Erdman. This song's wit and imagery put to shame nearly every other tune performed in the show.

The actors work diligently and with a great deal of energy. Many of the numbers are whole-cast extravaganzas and the performers hit the vast majority of notes. The volume can be daunting, what with six musicians, a cast of 20 and the constant firing of pistols and machine guns on a small stage in a hall seating 100. But then nobody ever accused this musical style of being subtle.

Most effective in alleviating the monotony was Alexander Averin who turned in a tight, comical performance of Mrs. Peachum's aide Filch. In his pink blazer, pink socks and with a dangling gold chain slung across his crotch, Averin's agile, eye-cocking Filch was light, ironic and entertaining, in short, everything the music that kept intruding upon him and others was not.

Alexander Averbakh's set consists of a curtain bearing the names of the theater's sponsors and an open space behind it occasionally littered with red or black chairs. A tiny balcony at stage right is a great place from which to belt a song or play a "Romeo and Juliet" parody, while a bench down front offers tired actors a place to sit.

Svetlana Sinitsina's costumes may be dubbed typical thug-and-prostitute chic. On the women, lots of feathers, lots of colors and lots of slits-up-to-here-down-to-there; on the men we see the styles of all the world's mafias from Odessa to Big and Little Italy. Lots of stripes. All of this brings me to one conclusion and one conclusion only: If you love Russian prison pop, by all means go see "No Holds Barred!" You'll feel like a kid in candy heaven.

"No Holds Barred!" (Na vsyu katushku!) plays June 25 at 7 p.m. at the Ruben Simonov Theater, 31 Stary Arbat (entrance through the arch). Tel. 248-1459. Running time: 3 hours, 5 minutes.