The power of theater
Posted on September 25, 2010
Pat and I traveled down to Cambridge last night to see Cabaret at the American Repertory Theater. I know I suffer an occasional excess of enthusiasm about cultural experiences, whether high art of popular, but this really was the best theater experience we have ever had and I would urge you to see it before it closes out. It reminded me of the knee-buckling power of art to rise above every day experience and touch our heads and our hearts.
This from someone who has a deep disdain for musicals and knew almost nothing about this particular musical before attending. What I did know was that Amanda Palmer from the punk cabaret group The Dresden Dolls was playing the role of the Emccee and that the Boston Globe gave it a rave review (http://www.boston.com/ae/theater_arts/articles/2010/09/10/stage_review_kit_kat_klub_comes_alive_in_arts_cabaret/)
The play takes place in a recreation of a 1920s Berlin nightclub, the Kit Kat Club, and the audience, sitting at cafe tables, is immediately pulled into the cross-dressing, fetishistic decadence of the Weimar period by being asked to sing along with drinking songs while the cast circulates through the club (as they do throughout the performance). The audience becomes part of the action, the scene, and we laugh and sing along (and in my case, get a kiss from Amanda Palmer!) while the horror that is to come is chillingly, but only momentarily hinted at early in the play. The bubble of self-indulgence, spiritually bankrupt and deliciously voyeuristic, comes crashing down in the second half of the play. It is incredibly powerful. I had no idea.
There is much that makes the performance special. Palmer is a bona fide star and her rendition of “I Don’t Care Much” as the American writer stands up to Nazi thugs and is dragged off screaming is hauntingly beautiful and sad. Breathtaking really. Palmer persuaded ART to have Steven Bogart direct the play. Bogart is a Dramatic Arts teacher at Lexington High, where Palmer attended, and is an award winning writer and director who has also worked with professional groups as well as high schoolers. But still. This is ART and he works in a high school. On the evidence of last night’s experience, he is a huge talent.
Unlike a movie or television show that lives on in Netflix or syndication, live theater is temporal and this play will end and while there will be more stagings of Cabaret, this exact experience will not be available to you again. Miss it and you will have missed one of the genuine highlights in our cultural landscape. We live in a time where, to borrow from Yeats, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” A wave of anti-immigration hatred, a demonizing of Islam (Texas is moving to have fewer references to Islam in textbooks at a time when we need more understanding), the Islamic Center debate in NYC — we live in a time when fear slips too easily into blind hatred and a striking out at and scapegoating of “the other.” Is the “We Want Our America Back!” chant of Tea Party rallies really so far different from the 1920s calls for German pride and purity that played upon economic distress and fear and the related demonizing of Jews?
That’s the question Cabaret asks in a sense and its brilliance is that the question goes beyond the way we amuse ourselves to death with movies and game stations and the NFL while a hateful ideology finds traction among Americans who feel abandoned and dispirited, to asking why we sit in a theater in Cambridge singing and laughing while so much danger is afoot. It was a chilling and brilliant post-modern experience.
One note: this is not a play for the kids, the meek, or for one’s sweet grandmother unless they have a high tolerance for cross-dressing sado-masochism, strap-on dildos, and nudity. Obviously, the Gen-Ed Committee will be fine with it (just seeing if Diana Polley is still reading my blog), but think about who you bring along.
The best art has the power to transport us and to illuminate the world in new ways. Go see Cabaret as soon as you can and you will know the truth of what I say.