“It’s just politics, what does that have to do with us?” So speaks Sally Bowles to her would-be fiancee in Cabaret. It’s a common sentiment: why get all worked up? “They” might be extreme, unpleasant, and a bit insane, but it will pass, everything will be alright—won’t it? This harrowing production at Off the Wall Theatre makes it urgently and forcefully clear that we ignore politics at our peril. This Cabaret is not a fun musical with some sexy dance numbers and a few Nazis tossed in for historical thrills: it’s an extended look at narcissism and self-destruction, whether individual, relational or societal. And, director Dale Gutzman implicitly adds, don’t imagine for a second that you are immune.
Gutzman, who has been producing plays at a near-miraculous pace for 14 years at Off the Wall, has never been content to just “do a play.” You may not like what you see; it may not be “entertaining” or pretty—but you can count on it being constructed intentionally and deliberately by a keen theatrical mind. And if his materials are sometimes rough and ready, he makes more out of them than most theaters do with much pricier stuff. Since the cast of Cabaret is quite good, the result is impressive, and— as Gutzman aims to devastate—devastating. In his hands the piece becomes an occasion for moral teaching as much as Berthold Brecht’s lehrstücke (after all, Brecht came from the same decadent and politically charged Berlin as the Kit Kat Klub). The play unfolds in a purely theatrical space that blurs the boundaries of the real world and the phantasmagoric nightclub until we can’t tell which is which. But far from letting us escape our cares, this drives us to examine them deeply.
Demimondes are intrinsically fascinating places where men and women adopt fantasy roles, flout taboos, and act out their secretest desires. This demimonde is packed (literally, the cast size nearly matches the audience) with black leather, fishnet stockings, gimp suits and falsies. But if you really look at a demimonde’s denizens (whether it’s 70s CBGB or modern strip clubs) everyone seems pretty miserable; if they were happy with the world, they wouldn’t need a demimonde, would they? As we enter the theater, we’re already in the Kit Kat Klub: louche patrons and scantily-clad showgirls lounge about looking bored, chatting softly or gazing at themselves in the wall-sized mirror that is virtually the only scenery. The sleazy manager works the audience, offering illicit pleasures. The musical numbers, delivered with decadent gusto by a live band, are loud, brassy and raunchy; Jeremy Welter uncannily inhabits the role of the MC as an evil clown, grinning madly in a perfect rendition of coarse German fun, mean-spirited and filthy. A ventriloquist’s dummy dressed up as Hitler is casually mocked, without any insight or critique.
Forget about the sprightly pace of Broadway musicals; the dramatic scenes play out slowly and deliberately. Claudio Parrone, as the American writer, seems to be sleepwalking, though his eyes and voice smoulder with unspoken passion. As Sally Bowles, Laura Monagle plays against Liza’s manic pixie girl model; she’s cool, notably insecure, as if her whole breezy bohemianism is an act that she only half believes in herself. Her seduction of Cliff seems perfunctory, as if they’re both compelled by their idea of what artists in Berlin are supposed to be like. This all-bitter flavor is double-edged: on one hand, it never lets us forget the creeping blight that was to metastasize into the Third Reich; on the other, the relentless gloom banishes contrast, like a Romeo and Juliet where we can tell from the start that the young lovers will be dead before the night is over.
PLEASE NOTE: THE FOLLOWING CONTAINS WHAT MAY BE CONSIDERED SPOILERS
As the action progresses, the Nazi Party intrudes more and more both into the character’s lives and the nightclub routines, which Gutzman twists in increasingly disturbing and potentially offensive directions. The show-stopper “Money,” is performed by Welter and the cast in long Orthodox coats, broad-brimmed hats, and payot; just the sort of thing you’d expect from a Wiemar nightclub catering to their antisemitic clientele. Most dreadful is the bitterly satirical “If You Could See Her,” in which Gutzman replaces the standard gorilla suit with a frail old woman, whom the MC gradually strips and brutalizes, painting a red star of David on her chest. The message is disturbingly, heavy-handedly clear: the fascists could not have gained power without a general tolerance of their race-hatred, and society became coarser and more brutal in proportion to their complicity.
The other couple of the play is movingly and credibly played by Lawrence Lukasavage as a simple grocer and the terrific Marilyn White as the landlady, whose eventual tough-minded embrace of practical reality evokes her earlier role as Mother Courage. Because Herr Schneider is Jewish, the old couple must part, doomed to lives of loneliness and worse. Sally has a different kind of realization: in her excruciating closing number, having abandoned her fiancee and aborted her child, she’s so wrecked that the MC has to literally lift her up onto the stage; she forces out the first verse in a hoarse whisper, word by agonized word, as if the song had been written by Samuel Beckett: language itself collapses as words no longer link together.
The tiny intimate theater is already sold out for the run; those who have tickets can claim bragging rights to have seen perhaps the most uncompromising, hardest-hitting show to be produced this year, and possibly many others.
directed by Dale Gutzman
Off the Wall Theatre
Runs through September 28th
all performances sold out