A.R.T.'s 'Cabaret' Is An Event

By: Sep. 10, 2010
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Book by Joe Masteroff, based on the play by John Van Druten and stories by Christopher Isherwood; Music by John Kander; Lyrics by Fred Ebb; Directed by Steven Bogart; Set and Costume Design, David Israel Reynoso; Lighting Design, Nicholas D. Vargelis; Sound Design, Clive Goodwin; Music Directors, Debra Barsha and Lance Horne; Movement Director, Steven Mitchell Wright

CAST: Emcee, Amanda Palmer; Sally Bowles, Aly Trasher; Cliff Bradshaw, Matt Wood; Fräulein Schneider, Thomas Derrah; Herr Schultz, Remo Airaldi; Ernst Ludwig, David Costa; Fräulein Kost, Claire Elizabeth Davies; Max, Jeremy Geidt; Kit Kat Dancers: Lucille Duncan, Gaetano Pugliese, Eric Johnson, Tamara Hickey, Renée-Marie Brewster, Jordy Lievers; Ensemble: Christopher I. Thomas, Ed Walsh, Annika Franklin

Performances through October 29 at Oberon, 2 Arrow Street, Cambridge, MA                      Box Office 617-547-8300 or www.americanrepertorytheater.org

There are occasions when theater must be described as an event: when it is impossible to contain the dramatic scope of the production on a narrow stage and numerous ancillary areas must be put into play; when the performances are so shattering and fully realized that characters can evoke fear and loathing, or unbridled sympathy from the audience; when The Combined effects of the art designs transport said audience to a convincingly imaginary place in a bygone era. This defines an event, an extraordinary occurrence. This describes Cabaret, brilliantly conceived and directed by Steven Bogart at the A.R.T.'s Oberon cum 1930s Berlin's Kit Kat Klub.

This is not the Cabaret of Harold Prince and Joel Grey, which opened on Broadway in 1966 and ran for 1,165 performances, nor the 1972 Bob Fosse film starring Liza Minnelli. Bogart's vision relentlessly hammers us with the raw emotions and decadent behavior of his characters and delves deeply into their psychological complexities, strongly portraying how they parallel the political and social complexities of pre-World War II Germany. He envelops us in the dark, seedy world of the night club and its fiendishly immoral inhabitants and, like any train wreck, we can't help but watch them crash and burn, despite knowing in advance how it will end. In this iteration, it is simply fascinating to observe the route that each character will take to his or her inevitable outcome.

Casting Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls as the Emcee of the Kit Kat Klub is a bold move, especially since she plays the part as male. She virtually dares anyone to doubt her capacity to sell the concept as she struts about the stage in black jodhpurs, suspenders, and high black lace-up boots, sometimes sporting a malevolent mien, and often with a twinkle in her eye. It is impossible to take your eyes off of her and she is everywhere in the course of the show, even appearing in scenes that take place outside the environs of the Klub. She insinuates herself into the relationships of others and becomes symbolic of the rising power and pervasiveness of the Nazi party. In effect, her Emcee is the conductor of the train, the puppet master pulling the strings, and the personification of the collective nightmare.

Make no mistake - the nightmarish quality of Cabaret is omnipresent, accentuated by the ghostly, powdery makeup adorning the faces and bodies of the Kit Kat Dancers, the lonely, hollow sound of a train whistle, the blinding white spotlight emulating an oncoming train, and the gruesome closing scene that sears itself into your retina. But it is this very harshness that makes Cabaret compelling, "must see" theater that will simultaneously entertain you and disrupt your comfort zone. In the pursuit of his vision for this production, Bogart has managed to further the mission of Artistic Director Diane Paulus by bringing the audience into the equation as living, breathing participants, not merely as observers. Each person has a private takeaway, informed by what they already know of these events and how they feel being immersed in the experience.  I doubt that two people will respond in the same way, but I don't doubt that they will be moved.

Joe Masteroff's book skillfully weaves together multiple story lines, enhanced by the excellent score by John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb (lyrics). Clifford Bradshaw (Matt Wood) is an American writer who arrives in Berlin hoping to find inspiration for his novel. On the train, he meets the German Ernst Ludwig who sets him up in a rooming house and takes him to the Kit Kat Klub to celebrate. British singer Sally Bowles (Aly Trasher) is enchanted with the English-speaking Cliff, but fears getting in trouble with her jealous boyfriend Max (Jeremy Geidt), the owner of the club. However, she shows up at Cliff's room the next day needing a place to stay after being fired. Wood telegraphs Cliff's discomfort, as well as his resignation and acquiescence, and the unlikely couple settles into a dreamlike existence.

The courtship of Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz blossoms when he presents her with a pineapple, and they become engaged when one of her boarders accuses them of impropriety. Sally announces that she is pregnant and Cliff is excited at the prospect of something giving them "focus." He agrees to pick up a suitcase in Paris and deliver it to Ernst for easy money. When the German shows up at the older couple's engagement party wearing a bright red armband emblazoned with a swastika, Cliff realizes the nature of his errand. The world begins to spin in an alternate direction as Ernst, Fraulein Kost, the Emcee, and the Kit Kat Dancers musically proclaim "Tomorrow Belongs to Me."

Act two starkly represents the new world order and everyone must decide whether to take action and what action to take. Schneider calls off the marriage; Schultz moves to another boarding house and plans to wait for things to blow over; Cliff chooses to take Sally back to America with him, but she is like the grasshopper to his ant and refuses to acknowledge that what is going on has anything to do with them. She returns to the club and sings that "life is a cabaret, old chum," perhaps finally realizing that the party is over.

Trasher is saucy and energetic in the part of Bowles and strikes the right attitude for each of her songs. As good as she sings, her most astonishing achievement is virtually shriveling into a physically and emotionally broken-down version of Sally at the denouement. Her chemistry with Wood is strong, but his heartbreak at their split is less convincing. Although Wood makes it credible that Sally and Cliff love each other, in spite of numerous references to the latter's bisexuality, Cliff's raison d'être is to find himself and write his novel. Therefore, it seems out of character to have him duet, albeit nicely, with Sally on "Maybe This Time," a song with a message more suitable for her heart's desire.    

In a cast of fearless performers, my vote for the most intrepid goes to Thomas Derrah for his stunning portrayal of Fräulein Schneider. While the case could be argued that two or three choices in the show are made for shock value, the cross-gender assignments of Palmer and Derrah do not qualify as such.  He inhabits the lonely boarding house landlady from the start when he tacitly makes it clear that he is not playing for laughs or camp effect. Derrah's Fräulein has seen it all, and his rendition of "So What" is lively and devil-may-care, even as it blatantly foreshadows the onrushing tide of change. His feminine mannerisms are spot on, and his physical size and deep vocal tones serve to give the character more gravitas, especially when she must choose between her Jewish fiancé and her own survival.

In a delightful twist of casting, longtime A.R.T. acting companion Remo Airaldi plays the elderly Jewish fruit shop owner Schultz opposite Derrah. Their scenes together are endearing, infused with the sweet intimacy of an old married couple, adding to the poignancy of their parting company. Airaldi captures the mixed emotions of the German-born Schultz who wants to believe that his countrymen will acknowledge his birthright, while knowing deep in his genes that his religious affiliation is more likely to determine his fate. His quiet dignity is a stark contrast to the strident wickedness of Ludwig (David Costa), the Nazi functionary who befriends Cliff and expects his loyalty, and Fräulein Kost (Claire Elizabeth Davies), the downtrodden prostitute who rents from Schneider and exacts her revenge for the landlady's umbrage at her activities. Ludwig and Kost are two peas in a pod, striving to keep their own heads above water by standing on the shoulders of the drowning victims.

As I alluded to in the opening paragraph, Bogart and his design team utilize every corner of Oberon's space, repeatedly drawing our attention away from and back to the main stage, alternating the setting between the Kit Kat Klub and Cliff's room. The swinging KKK Orchestra under Music Directors Debra Barsha and Lance Horne holds sway from a platform above the audience, and the scantily clad boys and girls of the ensemble sashay in and around the floor seats with their best leering expressions on their heavily made-up faces. It all adds up to "extreme" Cabaret and it is devastatingly good.

Photo credit: "Wilkommen" by Marcus Stern





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