Shalom Life | July 01, 2014

Shaw Festival Review: ‘Cabaret’ Takes a New Direction

Peter Hinton’s ‘Cabaret’ introduces modern audiences to a history they may be unfamiliar with.

By: Hermine Steinberg

Published: June 19th, 2014 in Culture » Stage » Reviews

Shaw Festival Review: 'Cabaret' Takes a New Direction

It has been said that Berlin in the 1920s and early 1930s had transformed itself into the Babel of the world and this seems to be exactly what set designer Michael Gianfrancesco has created. As you walk into the Festival Theater, you are confronted with a large metal tower sitting on a revolving platform. This is the only set and the centerpiece around which the story unfolds, intertwines, and flows through. And just as the tyrant Nimrod persuaded his people to turn away from God, and through fear and persuasion, made them dependant on his power for their happiness, Hitler constructed the Third Reich as a beacon of hope for the desperate masses who yearned for stability and meaning. Amid the general collapse of values, a kind of insanity was raised from the rubble that perverted nationalism into racism and loyalty into cold-blooded acts of violence. The set is symbolically and visually striking. But it also diminishes choreographer, Denise Clarke’s, ability to create more varied and interesting movement.

Unlike many versions of Cabaret where the emcee first appears like a naughty imp and the Kit Kat Club employees are dressed in colourful puppet-like costumes, we are welcomed into a dark world of zombie- like creatures led by leather clad, pointy headed host played by Juan Chioran who is large in stature and almost aloof at times. It is a disturbing vision that grips you from the very start of the play. There is no gradual build up or evolution as is usually experienced. And this is, at the same time, the power and limitation of Hinton’s vision. There is little delineation between what happens inside the Club and out in the world, never creating any real contrast in mood, and thereby robbing certain scenes of the intimacy and animation that could create a more dynamic flow to the play. The growing distortion and delusion that transforms into hate, prejudice, and general ugliness of the times is missing. The sexual freedom that is celebrated at the beginning is usually slowly revealed to be based in resignation and escapism rather than joyful self-expression. In Hinton’s Cabaret, the depth of despair is so profoundly felt right from the start that in some ways there is nowhere to go from there. Admittedly, being Jewish, a history teacher, and the child of holocaust survivors (and having seen Cabaret on stage many times), there was little left but an uncomfortable feeling of emptiness and gloom. We all know there is no happy ending or ray of hope coming; Germany is about to fall into the abyss and take much of the world with it. We are facing an apocalypse largely created by soulless monsters stripped of their humanity by the manipulations of evil demons.

During the infamous scene where the emcee brings out the gorilla and sings the satirical “If you could see her”, the audience laughter usually turns to shock when at the end he whispers, “If you could see her through my eyes, she wouldn’t look Jewish at all!” At the performance I attended, the audience sat quietly through the musical number but then to my surprise and disappointment, many people laughed at the closing line. I wasn’t sure if that was a nervous reaction, ignorance, or anti-Semitism rearing its ugly head in polite society, but it left me feeling even more depressed.

Against the backdrop of depression era Germany and rising Nazi influence is the story of two couples whose relationships are doomed. We first meet American writer Cliff Bradshaw who is searching for a story and a place where he can safely explore his sexual identity. He is befriended by a charming German businessman who helps him find a place to live and recommends a club where he can find some company. At the Kit Kat Club we are introduced to English cabaret performer Sally Bowles who sets her sights on Cliff after she is fired by the Club owner with whom she has been having an affair and has nowhere to live. Fraulein Schneider is the owner of the boarding house where Cliff resides, and is being courted by Jewish fruit vendor Herr Schultz who is also renting a room in her house. The two women are pragmatic survivors who have always been able to adapt to and make the best of bad circumstances. Both end up sacrificing relationships that could bring them happiness if they would be willing to leave Germany and open their eyes to the severity of the storm on the horizon. The men in their lives are romantics; idealists who believe new lives could be built upon a foundation of love and faith. Cliff, however, is the only one who sees the warning signs and decides it’s time to go back to America.

Deborah Hay plays a Sally Bowles that is more tragic than the bohemian free spirit that we have come to know. Her powerful voice and engaging musical performances easily win over the audience. The highlight of this production is her heartbreaking rendition of the title song near the end of the second act.

Gray Powell is American novelist Cliff Bradshaw who tries to save Sally from herself and the growing Nazi threat. He delivers a believable performance but is unable to convey the complexity of his character largely due to directorial choices that reduce his role to more of a theatrical device than a three dimensional character.

Fraulein Schneider is made convincing and compelling by veteran actor Corrine Koslo while Benedict Campbell as the naive and good natured Herr Schultz expertly delivers a heart warming performance that makes his eventual demise even more devastating.

In the Director’s Notes, Peter Hinton writes, “The enduring power of Cabaret lies not only in its ability to place us in a time in history – but to hold a mirror up to our own.” In his brave reinvention of one of the most popular musicals of the twentieth century, he has clearly communicated the horrors of confronting “the end of the world”. The question is whether it is more meaningful to be able to immediately relate to the story through anxieties we already feel about the world or to gain more profound insight from a slow intellectual seduction that leads us to an abandonment of self that is more insidious and dehumanizing. When you see a zombie, your first reaction would be to run; it’s our basic survival instinct. But when you are swept off your feet as you are about to fall by a handsome stranger who whispers promises of ecstasy and power, and then learn you have been sleeping with the devil, it is far more devastating and disturbing. In the end, you may have learned something new about yourself and the world in which you are living. But then, when it comes down to it, there are as many and perhaps more people who would rather see a horror movie than a thought provoking historical fiction.

Hermine Steinberg is a young adult/children’s author and high school teacher living in Toronto and Niagara-on-the-Lake. Her novel, The Co-Walkers: Awakening, is now available. For more information, visit www.cowalkers.com.

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