Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Trinity Rep's "Cabaret"

Cabaret, now showing at Trinity Rep, takes place at the sobering close of the dizzy, dithyrambic decade following World War I. The show, set in Berlin, begins as the 20s give way to the 30s and the extravagance of the Weimar Republic recedes before the moral stringency of the National Socialists—the Nazis. The party is still raging—its epicenter is the Kit Kat Club, its avatar the dissipated singer Sally Bowles—even as the clean-up crew starts to sweep in from the edges. Written in 1966 and based on the play I Am a Camera, itself based on Goodbye to Berlin, a collection of short stories by Christopher Isherwood published in 1939, Cabaret leans heavily on the audience's knowledge of what happened next: in 1933, Hitler was named Chancellor of Germany, a position he quickly leveraged to realize the totalitarian vision he had articulated in Mein Kampf. For the characters in the show, then, time is short. If our familiarity with history tightens the show’s tension, it also cheapens its achievement: we leave the theater not so much grieving a paradise lost as pitying the characters who have so underestimated the hell to come. The prelapsarian context charges Cabaret with moral seriousness while absolving its authors of the rigors of narrative, character, and setting. A story that ends in genocide has built-in pathos; what, besides music, can Cabaret contribute to it?

The answer to this is short and simple: Sally Bowles. Bowles is an English ex-pat who has become a star attraction at the Kit Kat Club, a bastion of frivolity in a city increasingly consumed by angst. As portrayed by Trinity firecracker Rachael Warren, Bowles is a marvel of a character, a cataclysm of opposing, or complementary, impulses: to babble and to obfuscate; to perform and to conceal; to connect and to go it alone. On stage she’s plucky and inscrutable; off, she’s fidgety and vulnerable. The central question around Sally Bowles is whether she is indomitable or merely elusive: is her power to captivate or to ingratiate? In a scene that culminates with Nazi Youth breaking into a triumphant performance of the patriotic anthem “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” our eyes turn to Sally, who is watching them with rapt fascination: their politics may be ugly, but their music is terrific. For the deracinated Sally Bowles, whose only home is in a song, this may be too much to resist. By the end of the show, when Germany’s grim future has been amply foreshadowed, Bowles has returned to the Kit Kat Club. She has lost a lover, aborted her pregnancy, and resolved to live in a doomed country; her final song, “Life is a Cabaret,” is a surrender phrased in the language of defiance. Warren, her voice loud, lusty, and lovely, achingly expresses this ambivalence. It is a thrilling moment of theater because it is a perfect crystallization of a complex character.

If only anything else in the show were as refractive as Sally Bowles; instead, we get dull-edged characterization and rubbed-smooth sentiment. The show is about Clifford Bradshaw (Mauro Hantman), an American writer who comes to Berlin for inspiration but who ends up, prosaically, giving English lessons instead. (Writers tend to make bad main characters: as stand-ins for the authors of shows, who wish to be neither self-aggrandizing nor self-incriminating, they are usually saddled with insipid goodness and passive natures. So it is with Bradshaw: he is a blank, but crisp, sheet of paper.) His lover is (inexplicably) Sally Bowles; his pupil is a Nazi named Ernst (Stephen Thorne); his landlady, the starchy Fraulein Schneider (Phyllis Kay), has a soft spot for his neighbor, a timid Jewish grocer named Herr Shultz (Stephen Berenson); another neighbor, Fraulein Kost (Janice DeClos), entertains young sailors in her apartment. It is not clear what world these characters are supposed to represent, except that of the Musical. Certainly there is nothing in this production to evoke the cultural schizophrenia of the era, the competing voices of trauma and arousal, the physical and spiritual disfigurement that made places like the Kit Kat Club necessary palliatives.

Berlin, I imagine, was a seething, pustular city—hence the makeup and make-believe at the cabaret. But Trinity’s Berlin has been treated with an antiseptic: sure, it’s a little wan, but you’d never know how sick it really was. Only Sally Bowles has the desperate vitality of the plague victim. Without a clearer picture of the city’s disease, the Kit Kat Club is just another saloon, its Emcee just another cross-dresser (although, to be fair, Joe Wilson, Jr. makes a hell of a cross-dresser). Director Curt Columbus has brought a cottony humanism to all of this work with Trinity, but that might not be the right texture for Cabaret, which cries out for a telling less merciful. The show is not without its delights; what it needs is more degradation.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Cool Nights; Drying Leaves; Theater Resumes...

...it's Fall in Providence.

I didn't see much theater this summer--just Hugging the Shoulder (presented by Theater of Thought) and Noises Off (present by Contemporary Theater Company). As I wrote in Motif, Hugging the Shoulder is a crude show, both vulgar and unsophisticated, though not, by extension, unenjoyable. The performance by ToT, in a crumbling parking lot behind Hope Artiste Village in Pawtucket, treated the subject of infection and decay with a violent current, a sort of moral cautery. But the show, and our reaction to it, was all reflex and no reflection. Theater of Thought should be commended for bringing contemporary and unsettling theater to Providence and for keeping audiences on their toes through strident staging. They have great energy (which is not meant to be euphemistic: energy matters); now they need great scripts.

Striving for a completely different breed of theater experience, the Contemporary Theater Company brought Nosies Off, the riotous farce about theater, to URI's Kingston campus in late July. The show is not particularly contemporary (certainly not compared with Hugging the Shoulder, which was first produced at the NYC Fringe Festival in 2006) but the performance was immediate and gratifying.

This weekend brings previews to both Trinity Rep and Gamm Theatre. Trinity is showing Cabaret; Gamm is starting its season with Much Ado About Nothing, which they will perform in repertory with another play you may have heard of, Romeo and Juliet (opening September 22). Second Story begins its season later this month with the one-man show I Am My Own Wife. And Elemental Theatre Collective opens Amadeus on November 5.