Mischief and Devil’s Work: “Sweeney Todd” at Arrow Street Arts

Davron Monroe and Joy Clark. Photo Credit: chelcymariephotography

Presented by Moonbox Productions
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler
From an Adaptation by Christopher Bond
Originally Directed on Broadway by Harold Prince
Directed by Ryan Mardesich
Choreography by Joy Clark
Music Directed by Dan Ryan
Fight choreography by Margaret Clark
Dramaturgy by Courtney Elkin Mohler

Oct. 13 – Nov. 5, 2023
Arrow Street Arts
2 Arrow Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
Audio Described Performances:
Sunday, October 29 at 3:00 pm &
Saturday, November 4 at 8:00 pm
Post-Show Talkbacks:
Sunday, October 22 with Director Ryan Mardesich and Music Director Dan Ryan

Content Advisory: Murder, Cannibalism, Sexual Assault, Gunshots, Violence.

Critique by Kitty Drexel

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Moonbox Productions welcomes audiences back to 2 Arrow Street with its inaugural production of Sondheim and Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Performances run now through Nov. 5 in Cambridge.

Arrow Street Arts resides in the renovated space of what was once the A.R.T.’s Club Oberon (RIP). Moonbox stripped the location of its dark aesthetic and replaced it with bright, white paint The better to showcase cast information, and Moonbox’s production partner, the New England Innocence Project

The shape and contours of the building remain unchanged. Ticketing is now to the left of the front doors instead of the right. Bathrooms are in the same location as they were in Oberon and are now gender-neutral and completely private. 

While the entryway and halls look unfinished, Moonbox will have plenty of opportunity to decorate the blank space with memorabilia from future shows. An alcove for audience reactions and selfies is to the right of the main double doors that lead to the seating area.

The theatre space was gutted in the renovation. There is no longer a bar. Club Oberon’s whimsical levels and dance floor were removed to make space for traditional stadium seating. The audience sits on wide, cushy seats in heavy black fabric. Lights and gobos still hang from the exposed, industrial ceiling. It feels new and yet like home.  

Moonbox’s Sweeney Todd is triumphant. It doesn’t set out to do everything it intends (such as offer a Brechtian take), but it does offer the audience an edgier, more horrifying interpretation of the Sondheim classic.

For a production to be Brechtian, it must meet certain requirements. It should alienate the audience per the rules of Brecht’s epic theatre. It should use song ironically. It should probably have projections, a minimal set, and stark lighting. To reduce decades of Brecht dramaturgy and Marxist Theory, contemporary theatre cannot meet the rules of Brecht’s objectives because we theatre makers have progressed too far and too fast. We’ve surpassed Brecht’s strides. His ideas are now commonplace on the stage. 

Photo Credit: chelcymariephotography

But! Moonbox’s Sweeney Todd does force its audience to consider the human cost of late-stage capitalism; it confronts the audience with misogynistic heterosexual marriage expectations within traditional relationships; and, it provides all this in a realistic, urban industrial package. I’d say that’s better than a true Brechtian interpretation any day. (Brecht was an edgelord who stole the work of his female writers and didn’t bathe.)

Sweeney Todd née Benjamin Barker (Davron S Monroe) is a London barber returned home after serving indentured servitude off the continent to exact revenge on the judge (Todd Yard playing Turpin with putridity) and the manservant (Meagan Lewis-Michelson breaking into a male-dominated field as Beadle Bamford. #TheFutureFeministsWant) who destroyed his family.  

Todd is recognized by local baker and business owner Mrs. Lovett (Joy Clark). They plot to bring down the judge and his cronies while serving luncheon and c*nt one shave at a time. This production features Dallas Austin Jimmar, Eva Akina Huertas Colliou, and Ethan DePuy. Eli Douglas breaks our hearts as they lose their mind as the ragamuffin with a heart of gold, Toby.  

Most productions of Sweeney Todd prefer to skim over its murder and cannibalism to favor Sondheim’s orgiastic music or the talents of the actors in leading roles. They give audience members plenty of opportunities to avoid the book’s direct references to eating human beings. When we see that Sweeney and Lovett are murdering, we’re told that it’s only bad people who die. We pretend that our imperfect protagonists are exacting positive change for a good cause.

Not so in this production. Director Ryan Mardesich and his designers confront the audience face-first with violent themes. Sweeney and Lovett are so irredeemably bad they make the Donner Party look sensible.

Sweeney Todd is a cold-blooded murderer who wants to kill Judge Turpin for his crimes against humanity. He’s also willing to kill anyone who walks into his shop because he can. Sweeney is soulless. 

Lovett is feeding human flesh to other humans against their will. Times are so bad, prices so high, and dating so repellant that Lovett chooses Sweeney over being single. There is no sex so good it’s worth feeding your community the other, other, other white meat. 

Davron Monroe and Todd Yard. Photo Credit: chelcymariephotography

Davron S Monroe as Todd and Joy Clark as Lovett are amazing. Monroe gives Todd a poise and grace Todd doesn’t deserve. Clark obliterates the role of the traditionally performed Lovett. No shade to Angela Lansbury, but Clark is bringing a new level of unhinged to the role. Don’t go to New York to see Sweeney. Stay here and watch these two.

The lighting design by Kat C Zhou is stark as heck. It goes beyond chiaroscuro to paint the cast with shadows that make them look like they are behind bars. It’s gothic and creepy… And obscures the faces of the cast when they should be in the limelight. In many other productions, this would detract from the performances. In this one, it works as a visual metaphor representing the dark underbelly of humanity.

Rebecca Glick’s costume design reveals the destitution of its characters while highlighting just how desperate Mrs. Lovett must be to prefer the face and body of Sweeney Todd. Yes, Glick’s costume and makeup design artfully portray the moral and financial poverty of the characters. It also confirms that all it takes to catch Turpin’s eye is a clean smock. 

Cameron McEachern’s set design is a wonder. From the fancy, electric sign advertising Mrs. Lovett’s pies to the swinging body bags with red stains indicating a neck cut in Act 2, McEachern delightfully transmits the vibes of the production. 

This Sweeney Todd is a little sexy… Maybe? Mardesich’s staging and Joy Clark’s choreography add lascivious layers. Todd gets a thrill out of cutting throats – as if he doesn’t feel alive otherwise. Mrs. Lovett doesn’t merely want a husband. She wants fulfillment

The Act 1 “Pretty Women” duet and fantasy ballet was queer and sexy. Both Turpin and Todd are realized as adult men with specific, unsavory kinks. The objects of their lust are mere receptacles for the men’s desires. 

“By The Sea,” usually a quaint ode to a seaside vacation funded by her new riches, now signifies Mrs. Lovett’s clean mental break from reality, a final grasp at sanity by her brain’s grey matter. It’s less sexy than it is a warning that, even in a fantastical musical about the horrors of capitalism and man’s greed, women’s sexuality is still reduced to a product for powerful men to consume.    

Moonbox’s Sweeney Todd is just in time for Halloween. Ticket prices are a little high, but, please remember, Arrow Street Arts is a new, separate entity from Club Oberon. They should not be compared.

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