The staging of this show, with this star, feels like a mission statement for the young venue which offers burlesque musical reviews and experimental comedy — work that, like Palmer’s, is intended to amuse, titillate and challenge. Its audiences are not allowed to sit passively in their own inner worlds. They rub elbows with one another, make way for performers who scurry among them, and contribute their own improvisations to the evening’s performance.
"Cabaret," is the show that introduced most of us to the genre. At this point in history though, it has the potential to come of as a bit tame. A product of 1960’s Broadway, it is a bit short on shock at a time in which gender bending, fetishistic costumes and lyrics about bed-hopping are staples of mainstream pop. Director (and longtime Palmer-collaborator), Steven Bogart solves this problem by making the play’s androgynous exhibitionists, into sad clowns.
As audiences enter the show’s Kit Kat Club, a glowing slogan greets them, hanging overhead: "In here, everything is beautiful." What the Klub actually offers, is a dark parody of beauty. The show is a mock elevation of the naughty in the guise of the elegant that’s also a front for a brothel. Described favorably by the play’s characters as a taste of "the real Berlin," it offers entertainment by and for the desperate.
"Cabaret’s" plot concerns Cliff Bradshaw (Matt Wood), an American na¯f with a yen for adventure who travels around Europe looking for something worth writing a novel about. At the Kit Kat Klub, he meets star attraction, Sally Bowls (Aly Trasher), an opportunistic English ©migr© who fastens herself to him, imagining he might grow into a meal ticket.
The two rent a room from Fraulein Schneider (Tommy Derrah in drag), a German native who disapproves of her showgirl tenants’ loose morals but can be paid not to. A woman of a certain age, Fraulein Schneider has survived by being apolitical, and finds herself tested by the kindly advances of Herr Shultz (Remo Airaldi), who suffers from the all too common historical phenomenon of being Jewish in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
Scenes featuring the mismatched young lovers and their corruptible landlady, broken up by distinctly non-cabaret-styled songs, can feel a bit creaky, but Bogart keeps them fresh. He casts the play’s chorus of kabukified drag performers (many of them alums from "The Donkey Show”) in every extra role he can, and keeps them in and around the stage as much as possible. This framing devise tells us that the campy love story is just part of the cabaret show, another parody of our aspirations. It also gives us a little more of Palmer, who is missed whenever she’s out of the spotlight.
Clad in a parody of men’s military garb, with her hair cropped and her breasts bound, Palmer’s M.C. is a perfect cipher. Her powerful, Marlene Dietrich-style alto contributes to her androgyny. In manner, she is at once animated and detached, eager to please with her stripper-clowns, her can-cans and her innuendos, but far too weary and cynical to enjoy them herself. She can play commander or humble servant, but takes neither role too seriously.
The more ambiguous she is the more absolutely compellingâ€”and the more disturbing once the story descends into a horror, and she remains, your humble master of ceremonies, just as she ever was.
“Cabaret” runs through October 29 at Club Oberon