UPDATE: Revised revisions at the bottom
I’m not entirely sure the best way to review King of Thieves, which opened yesterday afternoon. This is a new play, based on Gay’s Beggar’s Opera (the same source that inspired Brecht’s Threepenny Opera), by George F. Walker, author of Zastrozzi Master of Discipline and Nothing Sacred among other works, and something of a wild man of Canadian theatre. The concept was highly topical: re-set in the 1920s, but very much intended to reflect on our own times, Mac is now married to Polly Peachum but still a thief, and gets embroiled in a plot hatched by a G-man and his despised father-in-law (grown from a fence into a legitimate businessman) to sting a trio of bankers out to sink the world economy. And his play was cast with absolutely top-notch talent: Evan Buliung as Mac, Sean Cullen as master of ceremonies, and a host of other excellent actors from the company. And it’s a musical, with an original jazzy score by John Roby. And it’s directed by the extremely talented Jennifer Tarver (who staged Krapp’s Last Tape in the same theatre a couple of years ago). The auguries could not have been more auspicious.
Unfortunately, the play wasn’t ready. Though every single member of the cast does excellent work – especial call-outs to the entire Peachum family, Laura Condlln as Polly and Jay Brazeau and Nora McLellan as her parents – and though the music is very strong – and one song in particular, “Am I Who I Am Right Now” by the elder Peachums, is a real killer number – and there are individual bits of the play that work well, the whole doesn’t congeal, in part because the plot doesn’t make sense, in part because Mac’s arc isn’t properly worked out, and in part because I don’t think Walker yet knows what it is he’s trying to say beyond that bankers are the real thieves, and that one point isn’t effectively dramatized.
So in lieu of giving a detailed review of the play, which I’d still say is worth seeing if your expectations are for a phenomenally polished production of a play that really should still be in workshop, I’m going to offer some free advice on where to go with the next revision.
- The two big questions of the play are: what will Mac stand for, if anything, and who is the king of thieves? It seems to me like Mac’s arc needs to take him from being a confident small-timer, to an awareness of a wider world (in terms of larger ideals and bigger-time thieves), to disillusion with the wider world and the successful determination to beat it at its own game. That’s very broadly the arc you’ve got now, but it’s muddied because Mac’s sudden idealism comes from nowhere and because the financial plot doesn’t really build to anything but just comes crashing down in a heap. The “who is the king of thieves” question is muddied because it’s not clear what the basis of the rivalry between Mac and anybody else might be on that score.
- To clarify both questions, I suggest giving Mac a mentor who explicitly awakens him to new ideals, a mentor to contrast with the complacent Peachum who wants to be his mentor but who has long since been rejected, and who can then be exposed as a fraud.
- Peachum is Mac’s first rival for the title of king of thieves. What is the meaning of that rivalry? You’ve given Mac a line about needing to spread the wealth around in order to keep the economy going – and a kind of half-developed notion that theft actually makes everyone wealthier. This idea should be attributed to Peachum, not Mac. Peachum is the fence. He’s the one that puts stolen goods into circulation. If he’s going to represent an idea, it should be a satire of Keynesian economic thinking. He should be making the argument that theft benefits society by putting “dead” wealth back into circulation, and himself as playing the key role – the heart to the underground economy’s circulatory system. Give Peachum a song/lecture to that effect, on the nature of the economy and his vital role in it, with actual call-outs to Keynes, which Mac can fall asleep during. To Mac, the “king of thieves” is the guy working against the system, but to Peachum, the “king of thieves” is the guy who actually makes the system work. This is very close to Gay’s original Peachum, by the way.
- Your other contender needs to be the bankers, collectively. Their plot needs considerable work. The whole “sting” operation involving the FBI guy isn’t very persuasive. The FBI doesn’t really need Peachum to put the sting together, and the bankers don’t really need Peachum to concoct the scheme, and the idea that the FBI is trying to get the bankers before they destroy the economy is also a bit weak. Plus the bankers come off as idiots for getting involved in a simple Ponzi scheme. And I should think the FBI and the bankers would be on the same side at the start. So, first differentiate the bankers. You’ve got three right now, but they don’t really have individual personalities. Make one the crafty old miser, one the self-important heir to an old family, and one the young gun. (Analogy: like Octavius/Lepidus/Antony, except Octavius is the old one rather than Antony, and Antony is the young one rather than Octavius.) You’re part-way there in that you’ve already got a young one, but since he doesn’t have any fire in the belly his relationship with Mac isn’t very interesting. Now that you’ve differentiated them, you can make the old miser parallel to Peachum, and the young gun parallel to Mac.
- What are the bankers plotting? I like the idea that they are planning on putting on the “big short.” They are going to pump up the market enormously, then short it, and win big from everybody else’s loss. The idea they represent contrasts nicely with Peachum’s: Peachum’s notion of the economy is positive-sum while theirs is zero-sum; on the other hand, Peachum is involved in outright theft while they can defend themselves by saying that they aren’t breaking any laws nor are they actually taking anything from anybody; if other people are gullible enough to participate in a ludicrous market bubble, so much the worse for them.
So how does Ponzi get into it? And the FBI? And what kicks Mac off on his journey?
This is just a thought, but:
- The Ponzi scheme isn’t a way to trap the bankers; it’s a threat to the bankers, because it’s actually making it harder for them to pump up the market and put on their big short. The old miser banker is the one who brings the FBI in to bust the scheme and save their much bigger scheme.
- But the genius behind the Ponzi scheme is actually the young gun banker, who’s operating in disguise as a simple Italian immigrant. It’s in this disguise that he meets Mac, who’s busy burgling his house (but he can’t reveal that since it would break the disguise). He distracts Mac with ideology, describing his Ponzi scheme is something more akin to a communitarian initiative, a way for the workers to build wealth without being in thrall to the bankers. For the first time, Mac is awakened to something bigger than himself. But, of course, it’s a con.
- The FBI puts the screws on Mac because he’s involved with the Ponzi scheme. They want him to become the mole. Meanwhile, Mac finds out the real plans of the old miser banker to pump and dump the entire market, and how the Ponzi scheme is a threat to this plan, and he’s the one who reveals this to the FBI. This info is what causes the FBI guy to turn rogue, and use first blackmail, then outright violence to get some for himself, killing the young gun banker not realizing who he is. Which sets up a big tussle for the ill-gotten Ponzi scheme assets which Mac makes off with in the end.
- So Mac’s arc is from small-time big-shot pretty pleased with himself, to awakening to a wider world, to disillusion with the wider world, to confidence that he can beat the wider world at its own game and be bigger than he ever was.
You’ve also got two love stories: Mac-Polly and Mr. and Mrs. Peachum.
- I love Mr. and Mrs. Peachum, but I feel like their story needs forward momentum. So: Peachum’s gone respectable, and this has caused Mrs. Peachum to go cold. He’s worried about losing her. So he goes for one more big score – providing distribution for the Ponzi scheme (since he’s got the relevant clientele) which he knows is crooked (though he doesn’t know who’s really running it). This puts passion back into his marriage but gets him killed (by the FBI guy after he goes rogue). This isn’t too big a fix from what you’ve already got.
- Mac-Polly is a little more complicated to fix, because right now all you’ve got is a rivalry with a nightclub singer who’s kind of a watered-down version of the original Jenny. Make Jenny the doll of the young gun banker – in his true identity, not his disguise – and make Mac have a real thing for her, and be jealous. So Mac can have a romantic rivalry with the guy who, in disguise, is acting as his mentor, and there’s also a more substantial basis for some tension in his own marriage. (And we make Mac a sexier character, which he really needs to be.)
Have I made the whole thing way too complicated? Maybe. So you figure it out. But a few broad things I’m pretty sure of. The bankers need to be differentiated and at least one of them needs to be an interesting villain rather than an idiot. Mac is too much of a goody-two-shoes right now for the king of thieves; he needs to be darker and more complex, and if you want him to start spouting off about the working classes he needs a mentor to teach him that language, and that mentor needs to be exposed as a fraud. And there needs to be some more meat on the question: who is the king of thieves?
UPDATE: Hold the phone! A mentor character? MacHeath needs a mentor? I don’t think so. Reading over the above, I see I’ve drained all the interest out of Mac and given it to the young banker. So: Mac is the young banker. And Ponzi. And Mac. He’s a shape-shifting chameleon simultaneously infiltrating the upper echelons of society and plumbing the depths of the underworld, and in between conning the working classes into believing in a social welfare scheme that is nothing but a Ponzi.
Keep the plot pretty much as I’ve described it, including the FBI getting involved to get Mac to be a mole infiltrating the Ponzi scheme so as to save the bankers who really want to wreck the market for their own gain. Except now the FBI is, unbeknownst to them, trying to get Mac to spy on himself! And when Mac is jealous of Jenny’s new banker guy, he’s jealous of himself!
The audience, seeing the same actor playing all three parts, will naturally assume that this is cross-casting. So it’ll still pack a whallop when it’s revealed that all three are one person. Our own theatrical savvy used against us! What a perfect con!
And as for his motivation for such a complicated multiply-self-double-crossing plot, well, the answer couldn’t be simpler. To prove he’s the king of thieves!
Mr. Walker, you can get my contact info from the Festival office.