The St. Olaf Theater Department’s latest production, Cabaret, is an intriguing confluence of history and drama, blending the tragically real with the inventively fictional in a way that elevates both facets. The play covers the rise of the Nazi party in 1931 Berlin through the lens of those involved with a popular nightclub and those in their immediate vicinity. This motley crew of sexually adventurous individuals vacillate in and out of the show and reality.
The story centers around an American writer who has made his way to Berlin to find a story. His entanglement with a questionable British singer propels the plot forward and begins an examination of humanity interspersed with sections of dramatic and romantic rapport between the two characters, as well as their encounters with their neighbors, an elderly woman and the elderly man courting her – presented in fantastical scenes. These interludes are where the play takes place and begins to distinguish itself from a typical drama.
The cabaret dancers, led by the Emcee, masterfully portrayed by Ben Swenson-Klatt ’16, perform many numbers of various styles that are clearly detached from the outside world. These figures are almost otherworldly, as if their performances reflect an interior meta-commentary of the world encapsulated within the drama of the play, while the play serves to reflect reality. The cabaret is an idea that signals the changing of times, and the Emcee character headlines this shift, beginning with easy-going songs that celebrate an embrace of freedom. There are seemingly no societal restrictions on the characters as they embrace their sexuality in a variety of ways with seemingly no fear of censure.
However, as the play develops and Nazism proliferates, the story becomes much tighter and more strained. Characters begin to seek safety rather than embracing freedom, and the scope of the cabaret scenes become restricted. In a very effective ending to the first act, a previously considered innocuous character reveals himself to be a Nazi. Many of the cast members rally behind him, leaving the remainder huddled to the side, fearful. The larger group sings a rallying, nationalistic song, and as they do so the house lights turn on, shattering the audience’s anonymity and implicating them in the song. This created an effective and alienating effect of appearing public, and suddenly the illusion of audience separation from the primary events was shattered, an effect carried throughout the intermission when actors walked through the audience and spoke and danced with people.
However, as the second act progressed and tensions mounted effectively through the primary plot, the cabaret began to change. The songs which before addressed liberation become more topical, like having Swenson-Klatt’s character sing a love song to an ape. He tells the audience that if they could see through his eyes, she wouldn’t look Jewish at all, introducing to the world of the cabaret the strife of the world outside it. As Sally Bowles, the British woman, portrayed fantastically by Tara Schaefle ’16, sings the reprise of “Cabaret” the escapist image cracks once again, as what was an anthem of freedom becomes a death dirge.
Finally, cabaret ends at the same time as the show, viscerally destroying the illusion of distance between the Cabaret’s show and the world’s events at large. The unreal emcee is left alone on stage until stripping off his coat to reveal the harsh reality of the concentration camp attire underneath. Instead of being a release, the stripping is a solidification of reality.The harsh reality becomes part of the emcees character for just a moment until the character is denied to the audience, cut to black with the sound of a train driving by.
This darkness permeated the entire performance, but it was not without levity. The cabaret ensemble pieces were well choreographed and performed, with excellent work from the ensemble. The accent work was also very impressive, and all the characters seemed authentic in their speech.
Though Cabaret is the final production of the Theater Department’s 2015-2016 season, and it is also director and Assistant Professor of Theater Jeanne Willcoxon’s final production at St. Olaf. The department will be sponsoring the Quade One-Act Play Festival on May 13 and 14.