SF Weekly, January 4, 2006
We Like the Night Life
Bringing terror back to the Cabaret
-- By Chloe Veltman
In the middle of Shotgun Players' Cabaret, the audience gets to sing along with one of the numbers from John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Joe Masteroff's beloved musical. The production is so engrossing and the melody of this particular song so sweetly infectious that -- at least on the night I attended -- even the most inhibited and tone-deaf among us couldn't help but join in. Soon the theater was full of heads bobbing to the oom-pah-pah beat provided by the live five-piece band. It wasn't until the second verse, when I was belting out the lines "The branch on the linden is leafy and green/ The Rhine gives its gold to the sea./ But somewhere a glory awaits unseen/ Tomorrow belongs to me," that I realized, with horror and no small amount of embarrassment, that I was enthusiastically singing a Nazi torch song.
Cabaret has enjoyed immense popularity since its multiple Tony Award-winning original Broadway run in the late 1960s. A 1972 film based on the musical turned Liza Minnelli into an international star. The show has been revived twice on Broadway to great acclaim: The most recent production, which transferred to New York from London in 1998, is the third longest revival in Broadway musical history (after Oh! Calcutta and Chicago -- the latter Kander and Ebb's other hit). Cabaret's power isn't surprising. Besides the cracking songbook, the story of Clifford Bradshaw -- a young American writer who pitches up penniless in Weimar Berlin and quickly succumbs to the topsy-turvy hedonism of the local night life, not to mention the wiles of the ditsy British expat and cabaret performer Sally Bowles -- possesses the two main ingredients of a best-seller: sex and violence. As composer Kander once put it: "I guess it just proves, much to our delight, that corruption never goes out of fashion."
In many productions, though, corruption has come to mean merely sex. The musical's depiction of the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of Weimar Berlin is so often distilled into an aphrodisiac of gyrating Fräuleins in falling bra straps that the terrifying commentary on the dangers of uncritical thinking and racial profiling tends to get Bowles-lerized. That director Russell Blackwood spends much of his time making theater at the point where sex and violence meet (Blackwood's S/M-laced Grand Guignol productions at S.F.'s Hypnodrome walk a tightrope -- in fishnets and thumbscrews, no less -- between pleasure and pain) may explain why Shotgun Players' revival is different.
Certainly, this Cabaret features an abundance of sex. From chorus girls shimmying their naked bits to randy sailors giving each other head, Blackwood's fecund production makes the Minnelli movie look like an office Christmas party. Kimberly Dooley's Sally Bowles is obligingly wanton. When she first appears, perched on a round swing like a long-legged songbird, Dooley seems delicate and girlish. But as soon as she steps off that swing, she's something else. If Dooley doesn't quite bare all during the course of the show (though we do get a pretty good idea of her vital statistics, it must be said), the playful sensuality of her performance is pure striptease.
Sex is even ingrained into the physical architecture of the production. A titillating peep-show lobby display with keyhole-shaped viewing slots, designed by Aiyana Trotter, allows passers-by to ogle naked ladies before taking their seats. Heather Basarab's suggestive set design echoes this motif: A long runway slides in and out of a gaping keyhole backdrop at various points during the proceedings. It's used to particularly mesmerizing effect during Sally and the chorus' rambunctious number "Mein Herr." When the gals crawl out on all fours along the phallic runway wearing high-heeled shoes -- more teetering works of absurdist sculpture than footwear, really -- the intimate venue, with its cabaret seating and casual atmosphere, completes the transformation from black-box theater to lurid nightspot.
But the bodily juices wouldn't flow as freely without Blackwood's profound feeling for blood. The violence in this production builds to a crescendo through an insidious attention to detail and the liberal use of Brechtian alienation techniques. Some of the horror is so subtle that it barely registers. But it's there, nevertheless, in the slapping down of a copy of Hitler's Mein Kampf on a ringside cabaret table to the pianist's Führer-like bark of "Eins, zwei, drei, vier!" at the start of each song.
Elsewhere, the terror tactics are bolder. Some moments -- like when Clive Worsley, the androgynous Emcee, rips off his wig to reveal a bald head, or when we watch Dooley gulp down a hangover cure fashioned before our eyes from raw eggs and Worcestershire sauce -- are as comical as they are alarming. At these times, the horror is merely a splash of cold water to the face, easily warmed with laughter. But as the plot develops, a darker, more aggressive horror prevails. Worsley's wiry Emcee is no cutie-pie Joel Grey from the film. There's a hardness to the character's tomfoolery -- and, despite the neo-Nazi connotations, it's not just to do with the actor's snooker ball-smooth scalp. Worsley's erratic mood swings, which veer from saccharine sweetness to hotheaded anger, bubble dangerously throughout. When Nazi roughnecks beat up Clifford Bradshaw (Cassidy Brown), it's no surprise to see the Emcee rouging his cheeks with the victim's blood.
Cabaret is like a party on the Titanic, but most directors are more interested in staging a striptease than a sinking ship. Not Blackwood, though: The musical was originally conceived in response to a wave of racial crimes in the U.S. in the 1960s (such as the murder of Martin Luther King Jr.), and Shotgun Players' production taps into the malaise of our own time, responding, with lipstick-coated irony, to the post-Sept. 11 spirit of tightening borders, widespread suspicion, and paper-thin optimism from the White House. It's testimony to this version's brilliantly manipulative mixture of pleasure and terror that I could be disgusted by the meaning behind the words "Tomorrow belongs to me," and yet find myself compelled to bleat them like an obedient sheep. I haven't felt so conflicted at the theater in ages. If life is a cabaret, old chum, then it's modeled on the Hypnodrome.