By Alexis Nelson

Cabaret at PlayMakers

By Alexis Nelson Posted April 10, 2013 at 7:40 pm

“In here, life is beautiful,” says our host, or “Emcee,” for the evening as he ushers us away from our troubles and into a glitzy, lascivious place where politics are a trifle—a bore—and the party, it seems, need never end. “Yes, it’s going to be that kind of show,” he adds. The crowd laughs, but it turns out it is that kind of show—in more ways than one. It’s a bawdy burlesque featuring sex, sequins, song, and intrigue. It’s also the kind of show where the message, the solemnity, and the nuance are never far from the surface. The party is, it turns out, constantly crashing in on us, whether we notice or not.

“Cabaret” is the final show of Playmakers Repertory Company’s Mainstage Season. The musical opened April 3rd and will run through the 21st at the Center for Dramatic Art on the UNC campus. The show is directed by Joseph Haj, who directed Playmakers’ 2011 show “Big River.” Haj is also the theater’s producing artistic director.

The play’s premise, plotline, and writing are daring and clever—challenging the audience to remain constantly engaged and critical. Playmakers’ version of the Tony-Award winning musical does not shy away from the play’s weightiness and intricacy. Haj and his team have created something that is deeply ambitious—something that asks quite a lot of the audience and is complexly rendered.

There is not always complete success, and some aspects of the performance fail to cohere absolutely or achieve their potential impact. Playmakers’ “Cabaret” does not feel effortless. There are signs of straining—of backbends performed to pull it all together without showing (too much) sweat. However, the show is very enjoyable, and there are moments of brilliance—of reward.

The play, based on a book by Christopher Isherwood, originally premiered on Broadway in 1966. The show was greeted warmly and engendered a 1972 film version starring Liza Minnelli as the flighty, self consciously footloose Sally Bowles.

“Cabaret” thrusts us into a very specific moment and climate. The time is 1931—the place Berlin, Germany. The audience is invited into the salacious world of the Kit Kat Klub, a Berlin dance hall and bohemian night club. As the sun sets on the Weimar Republic and the furor and prominence of the Nazi party grows, the revelers of “Cabaret” hold tighter than ever to their partying and to their willful disengagement from politics. The ever-escalating power of the Nazis tinges the play, at all times, with something sinister.

The Nazi’s rise, even when it is not being explicitly asserted, undercuts and aggressively belies the insular, trivial, and self-interested spheres of the nightclub revelers. The spirit at play in the foreground of “Cabaret” interacts interestingly with the darker undercurrent, and this crucial dynamic comes to a head as the show progresses.

The ostensible clash between the mood of revelry and the brewing storm of Nazi Germany distorts the scenes of untrammeled fun—lending a dark, twisted quality to the partying. The willful disengagement from politics and embrace of the moment, placed against and alongside the empowerment of the Nazis, makes the revelers seem complicit. In fact, the two tenors of the play start to feel less like they clash and more like they are inherently connected.

The whole thing reads like a carnival ride gone awry—a perverse merry-go-round whose operator has long since departed and whose riders refuse to hop off. The partiers who sleep-walk through life morph seamlessly into the Germans upon or behind whose backs the Nazis’ rise to power was undertaken.

The Emcee is our guide through this distorted, circus-like world. He is mocking and irreverent and seems to embody the apotheosis of the play’s nightmarish spirit. His demeanor is always a bit knowing and satirical while also slightly nutty—slightly off.

Much of the play’s energy comes from the Emcee. He epitomizes and parodies the chaos, disjuncture and mad, insular selfishness that signals imminent breakdown and the rise of something dangerous. He also serves to highlight the close connection between the revelry of the Kit Kat Klub and the emergence of Nazi Germany.

Taylor Mac shows off his prodigious ability in his role as the Emcee. An Obie Award winner, Mac plays a difficult part with incredible energy. He is deeply invested in this complex character and does not simplify his strangeness or multi-dimensionality.

As the show’s resident voyeur and guide, the Emcee engages the audience—pulling them, sometimes physically, into the characters’ world. Mac is both charming and off-putting in his role—beguiling and amusing the viewers one second and alienating or disgusting them the next. The job seems exhausting and incredibly daunting. Mac, however, makes it all look fairly easeful.

Lisa Brescia’s performance is similarly inspired, intelligently considered, and indefatigably energetic. She brings Sally Bowles to life—helping to anchor the show and engage the audience. Her voice is beautiful (she toured for five years with The Mamas and The Papas), and her stage presence is arresting.

Sally Bowles becomes romantically entangled with Cliff Bradshaw (played by John Dreher), and the two are an intended focal point of the story. Bradshaw is an American who has come to Germany, typewriter in tow, to find inspiration and undertake serious work on his novel. Bowles is the lead Kit Kat Klub performer until she is fired by her boss and lover. Flighty, shallow and proud of her bohemian lack of direction, engagement, or responsibility, she is a difficult character to like.

Bradshaw is also vexing. Upon arriving in Germany, he is immediately pulled into the world of the Kit Kat Klub and continual partying. He doesn’t bother to investigate Germany beyond this insular atmosphere. He is disengaged from German politics and allows himself to be distracted by a shallow relationship with Bowles, abandoning work on his novel.

Interested in making money and not caring enough to ask questions, Bradshaw runs errands for people who turn out to be Nazis. When he finds out, he is partially awakened from his passivity. He takes a stand against the Nazis—eventually deciding to leave Germany.

John Dreher seems over-focused upon depicting Bradshaw as a total sleepwalker. Though this passivity is crucial, Dreher takes the strategy too far—making his character so zombie-like that he becomes unbelievable and two-dimensional.

When Dreher does infuse his character with more life—attempting to convey passion or anger—the display comes off as too abrupt a shift, and, again, the character loses believability.

Dreher and Brescia also lack chemistry. At times they seem to be acting alongside—rather than with and against—one another.

The storyline between Fraulein Schneider, played by Julie Fishell, and Herr Schultz, played by Jeffrey Blair Cornell, is more engaging and feelingly rendered. Part of this discrepancy can be explained away by the fact that Dreher and Brescias’ characters are not supposed to be nearly as sympathetic and emotionally connected to each other as their older counterparts. However, even aside from these intentional differences and the greater passivity of Dreher and Brescias’ characters, there is something more successful about Fishell and Cornells’ portrayals.

Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz’s relationship provides a much-needed emotional entrance point in the play. They are both compelling characters, and their story is immensely engaging.

Fishell does a remarkable job portraying Fraulein Schneider as a world-weary woman—a survivor—who has grown a bit obdurate from life’s travails. A number entitled “So What” is particularly illustrative of this fatigue—this focus on journeying on and accepting life as it comes. The song is brilliantly performed by Fisher and is a great, important moment in the play. However, as it turns out, Fraulein Schneider is still able to open up and let herself feel—to focus less on merely surviving and more on living, connecting, and participating.

Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz’s relationship is funny, and it is beautiful. Though it too has its obstacles—its sad realities—it offers, at least in the beginning, a spot of hope and engagement in a dark, difficult play.

The set design of Playmakers’ “Cabaret” is truly terrific. The overall structure is ingeniously versatile and wonderfully eye catching. Elaborate and at times appropriately scandalous, the costumes are also a treat.

Despite some faults, the play is quite impactful. Playmakers’ “Cabaret” takes the audience on a journey through confusion, chaos, and distraction and then awakens us, in the end, to the fully-formed monster of the Holocaust and Nazi rule. Though we glimpse the darkness that is the play’s constant undercurrent, like the shows’ characters, somehow we miss the moment at which it all slips past the point of no return.

Ticket prices range from fifteen to fifty dollars. April 16th will be an all-access performance (featuring sign language interpretation and audio description) for attendees with special needs. The April 20th and 21st performances will be followed by a free “Mindplay” discussion sponsored by the North Carolina Psychoanalytic Society.

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