Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Cabaret dell'Arte

(Disclaimer: I am not a professional theater critic, nor do I have any business trying to be one.)

Another production of Cabaret, I thought -- until I heard that the Milwaukee Repertory Theater's own Lee E. Ernst would star as the Master of Ceremonies (and Preview tickets were cheap!). Ernst's dynamic portrayal of the frenetic, improvisational masked clown and show-stopping centerpiece Harlequin in The Rep's 1998 production of Servant of Two Masters, an 18th-century classic in the Commedia dell'arte tradition, had been one of the most distinctive, physically expressive, exhausting stage performances that I'd ever seen. Now the Emcee role; perfect casting. "I am your host!"

Twelve years on, Lee Ernst is nearly as spry as before, and his unmasked facial expressions are priceless. As the events inside and outside the Kit Kat Klub progress from light entertainment to ominous foreboding, building ultimately to tragedy and terror of historic proportions, Ernst centers the show. With the exception of the stage-whispered song "I Don't Care Much", which I guess is meant to be haunting but seemed underwhelming, Ernst's musical numbers were spot-on, faithful recreations of the original versions with touches of his own manic style.

That a long-time Milwaukee Rep favorite actor should be the one to animate the 2010-11 season opener is ironic, as The Rep's new Artistic Director Mark Clements cast dozens of outsiders and interns as part of a purported fresh blood/new energy movement for the company. Some fit their roles well, most notably supporting players Linda Stephens as Fräulein Schneider and Angela Ianonne as Fräulein Kost. Those recalling the movie version, expecting scintillating lead performances from the actors playing the Liza Minnelli-Michael York couple, will be disappointed, however -- not in Kelley Faulkner's powerful, pitch-perfect singing of the title song as Sally Bowles, but in her rigid affect, a seeming disqualification for playing a headlining showgirl. I got the sense that she hadn't quite warmed to the role yet. I also thought Ianonne, a more expressive actor, might have made a more credible Sally Bowles. Geoffrey Hemingway, as the closeted American naif who becomes enamored with Sally, is also either miscast or misdirected, coming across as a refugee from the cast of Our Town whom one can never quite believe is a promising writer.

Director Clements is more successful in the overall stage direction, including his collaboration with Milwaukee Ballet Artistic Director Michael Pink as Choreographer. It's evident that exceptional effort went into the dance and musical direction of the show, particularly the show's classic opening number, "Willkommen!" I had a sense that Clements wanted to make both a statement and a memorable splash with his first production number of the season -- not to mention his nascent tenure as Artistic Director. While this production seems "safe" -- PG-13, if you will, and not at all edgy by today's standards (what were those odd costumes Lee Ernst was wearing?) -- Clements is quite unsubtle in presenting the signs of impending doom in the Nazi era. With a spotlight narrowly focusing on a significant, symbolic crystal bowl, and the ensemble's coalescing into a folk chorus singing the nationalistic anthem "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" -- not to mention the openly, unabashedly displayed swastika armbands on the sleeves of partisans -- the show leaves little doubt about the horrific trajectory that awaits German Jews and Germany itself in the 1930s.

One side note: I very much appreciate the preliminary talk given by Milwaukee Rep cast member Jonathan Gills Daly, who appears in the show moments later as the middle-aged, Jewish-German fruit merchant, Herr Schultz, tragically smitten with Fräulein Schneider. His description of the events and mindset of ordinary Germans in 1928, based as they were on German national ambitions and humiliations of the prior seventy years, covers familiar ground but is, perhaps, useful for younger audience members who may not yet have been introduced to the lessons of history -- and stands as a stark warning for those among us who may have forgotten them.


  1. I saw the show last night. BOOO!!!!! Kelly Faulkner, the woman who played Sally Bowles, effected an upper crust English accent throughout the show and was way too old for the part. Some once young and talented Milwaukee player too old for the part, who couldn’t even cut or dye her bright red soccer mom hair to resemble something like Liza, the archetype and icon for the part. Maybe a little eye shadow? Play some old crone on stage. You looked STUPID up there, despite the fact that you were surrounded by talented cast and musicians. You will never be 24 again, capiche? The M/C was a little long in the tooth, but he held his own. I drove up from Chicago to see this show and was so very disappointed. The blonde Aussie chorus girl was a highlight for me. Hopefully she’ll become a down under ingenue soon along the likes of Toni Collette. Here’s a thought: let her play Sally Bowles, rather than grandma soccer mom with the WRONG English acccent. Ever watched BBC? There are a few other accents that would have applied to a more working girl type that Sally was supposed to be. You totally missed the mark, lady. Take your cues from the down under girl, at least she’s by descent, more English that you’ll ever be, old chum! BOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. Entertaining comments, but rather harsh in tone -- I don't know that I would ever use the work "stupid" in all caps in a theater review, even an anonymously posted one -- although I do agree with you that the Bowles actor's upper-crust English accent didn't fit the showgirl part.

    Liza's performance may be cemented in the popular imagination, but I don't think she has to be considered the definitive Sally Bowles that each and every revival of the show must emulate in every style element. So long as costume, hairstyle, etc. are appropriate to the period, they won't distract the audience from the story if the acting and direction are good.

  3. Bob,

    You lose any and all credibility as a serious blogger to allow a comment like the above to remain on your site. It reads like the ramblings of a deranged mental patient. Entertaining??? Really??

    Has it ever occurred to you people that actors learn the dialects they were instructed and directed to learn and perform? And that screaming about an actor's age as if you are offended by their very presence is, um, slightly irrational? Why don't you leave the theatre reviewing and commenting to the real journalists and serious theatre goers. This is embarrassing.

  4. sally bowles is clearly wearing a wig, you moron.

    "grandma"? "soccer mom"? "old crone"? someone should spay or neuter you immediately.

    also, not for nothing, but there is no "blond aussie chorus girl" in the show. there is a very lovely and talented blond australian in the cast, who wears a dark wig and never speaks onstage. so....ya think someone's friend maybe has an axe to grind?? jesus.

  5. Thank you for your welcome critique of my comment moderation policy. To be clear, my decision was to publish the prior comment and respond with my thoughts, rather than to squelch it. I will do the same now.

    As I stated, I thought the earlier comments were harsh in tone. I didn't at all like the use of the word "stupid", and said so, just as I don't care for your use of the phrase "deranged mental patient". A rant may be appropriate or inappropriate, proportionate or disproportionate, depending on the context, but your stereotyping reference to mental illness detracts from your argument. In my opinion, it's also a public disservice to the truly afflicted.

    You are correct; I should have chided the original comment writer for decrying the actor's age, whether he/she had perceived it accurately or inaccurately. I wish I had done so.

    Yes, it has occurred to me that "actors learn the dialects they were instructed and directed to learn and perform." It seems an obvious point, but I certainly agree with it.

    It's not clear whom you are referring to when you say "you people", and await your clarification as to the identity of the group to which you have assigned me.

    Your last question, although rhetorical -- in essence, how democratized and open to amateurs should arts criticism be? -- deserves a thoughtful answer. Here's one attempt at an analogy: although a baseball fan might not be able to turn a double-play herself, it does not follow that she should have nothing to say about a major league shortstop's errors.

    The Internet-enabled exchange of opinion does lead to "ramblings", as you put it, whether in social media or in response to public blogs on sports, politics, or the arts. It also leads to more free and open expression, new and different perspectives, and diversity of commentary. The result may not be as predictably cozy, comfortable, and respectable as when "real journalists and serious theatre goers" talked mainly amongst themselves, but it's occasionally refreshing when new voices, both couth and uncouth, are added into the cultural mix.

    In any case, the cream rises to the top; if the professional critics produce the best reviews, their words will be read avidly.

  6. Again, I would like to move away from comments like "stupid", "deranged mental patient", and "moron". Effective language is at all of our disposal to make rhetorical points without resorting to cheap stereotypes of the mentally ill and developmentally disadvantaged.

  7. are you serious?

    under the guise of being diplomatic, you dignified an immature and insulting comment, and that is putting it mildly. it honestly sounds to me like a person with emotional issues. if you think that commenter was worthy of an real discussion, then i guess that's your problem as a human being. i'm not trying to insult the mentally ill. give me a break.

    yes, fresh perspectives on theatre are always welcomed by the community...when they are COHERANT and not utterly mean-spirited. the rep has reached out to a new audience with this piece. but why give voice here to nonsense and hate? although i think your personal assesment of the show was pretty ridiculous, it wasn't comletely non-sensical and seething with anger.

    honestly, this all would be funny if it weren't so sad.

  8. I try to be serious, when I'm not trying to be funny.

    You have accused me of being diplomatic, and I plead guilty.

    I agree that the earlier comment we're discussing was immature and insulting. I am unaware that I have dignified it. I did call it "entertaining" before I criticized some of its over-the-top particulars.

    I do think that all people are worthy of real discussions. That is my problem as a human being, I agree.

    You are not trying to insult the mentally ill by using the phrase "deranged mental patients". I'll take your word for it.

    I don't have the credentials to determine whether a respondent to a blog has emotional issues. Perhaps you do. My understanding is that such a diagnosis would be arrived at by a licensed professional following an in-person examination according to a defined protocol.

    "Coherent" is spelled with suffix -ent, not -ant. I've never learned the spelling rule that differentiates the two, either.

    Why give voice to nonsense and hate? It's a good question. I would say, it's better to illuminate hatred with a bright light and then oppose it in debate and deed than to sweep it under the rug. For example, you were quite right to criticize the ageism of the earlier respondent, in my opinion.

    Cabaret -- both the show and the genre -- opposes hate quite effectively, by the way. Would it have been better for the show never to have been staged because some of its characters promulgate utterly mean-spirited opinions? That itself would be nonsensical.

  9. ok, i'm almost done here...

    no, not everyone is worthy of adult discussion. people who act like schoolyard bullies and spew hateful & utterly non-sensical words should not be encouraged. period. respect begets respect in my world. if someone wants to engage me in discussion, they can disagree with me all they want, but the moment they become aggressive or completely irrational, i'm done. what's the point? certain statements should just not be dignified with a response. i think most people would agree with that philosophy.

  10. Thank you again for your participation in this open discussion on the "My Two Innings" review of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater's season-opening production of "Cabaret".

    "Cabaret" as a play raises issues about confronting hateful speech, of course. The Ernst Ludwig character is revealed over the course of the play to hold noxious opinions, and to take actions based on them. We know what *actually* happened in history; what would you say *should* have been the response by a German citizen in the late 1920's in confronting an Ernst Ludwig? Would you attempt continued persuasion, debate, and appeals to logic and reason, or would you disengage, saying "What's the point?"

    (Not to put you on the spot personally with this. I don't know how courageous I would have been in that situation, either.)

    I only regret that you're "almost done" here. This blog's readers -- several per month, surely! -- could have benefited greatly from your continued involvement.

  11. just so you know, that weirdo posted the exact same comment on EVERY review of cabaret that has been posted, under different names. real nice. sharing negative opinions about a show publicly? fine. this sort of pointed hatred? not ok. actors open themselves up to critique....they should not be targeted like this. people can say what they want, it's a free country, but it makes me angry that others indulge and encourage it.

  12. Thank you for your input, again. Your central point is not in danger of being unread or unheard by anyone who happens upon and then slogs through this comment stream.

    It's intriguing to me that you've used a marginalizing epithet -- "weirdo" -- to refer to the first commenter. Granted, yours is a milder slur than the several that the initial respondent issued about the actor, but once you go down the ad hominem road, isn't it just a matter of degree?

    For what it's worth -- and I suspect you won't think it's worth much -- I've tried to keep my comments in this thread focused on the content of the various remarks, rather than on the people issuing them. That's been made easier by the fact that people are posting their comments anonymously.

    I've "indulged" remarks of all kinds, if only by posting them as they arrive and then responding with my thoughts, but I don't think that I've "encouraged" them.

    You mentioned actors opening themselves up to critique. I sometimes wonder how today's actors are formally trained and subsequently prepare themselves to handle not just professional criticism but also the inevitable public chatter, fair and unfair, that comes from performing in the Facebook, Twitter, and blogging era. I'm sure it's not easy. If I ever find myself in a discussion with an actor, I'll have to ask him/her about this.

  13. you are hopeless. and PS...on one of the sites, this charming poster actually wrote "F U old lady!" keeping it classy.

  14. Thank you for reminding us that logic, reason, an even temperament, and good manners are all desirable qualities, even in debate.

  15. I'm sorry that your blog has gotten hijacked by this kind of conversation. Cabaret is truly a magnificent show. Whether or not you like all of the performers equally, or agree with or even appreciate the finer points of the directing is just individual opinion. It's sad when people spew venom, either in attacking performers, or in attacking the commentators. What we really should be talking about is what amazing theater we have in this town!

  16. Agreed, and I'll even take it a step further: we've got terrific arts resources in this town in general! I particularly enjoyed the comedic and cabaret posters special exhibit recently at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Unfortunately that exhibit is over now, but it was a nice thematic tie-in with the Milwaukee Rep's production of Cabaret.



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