“Cabaret” in Putin’s antigay Russia

A production of the musical Cabaret is set to roll into Seattle shortly complete with a fascinating setting – that of modern-day Russia.

The Tony Award winning show is a favorite for those willing to explore the shadows of a culture butting heads with a political wave. Though the musical’s original setting takes place in Berlin as the Nazis are rising to power, this production’s concept of setting the action in Putin’s current regime seems somehow apropos.  This production will feature an all-male cast and will combine theatre, drag, and short clips of actual vigilantes and neo-Nazis to comment, agitprop-style, on the tumultuous cultural climate there. 

drag

The Artistic Director of Arts on the Waterfront, the company producing this version, posits about the upcoming show:

“The whole point of the show is to draw connections between the beginning stages of the Holocaust in 1930s Germany and the current situation in Russia, with Putin’s antigay laws and the killing and torture of gay youth by the Russian neo-Nazis. But, to tell this story well, we need to completely seduce the audience in the first half of the play into thinking that this Cabaret is the most fabulous place they have ever seen, so we plan on striking a careful balance between modern Russian imagery and the musical’s German roots.

So many actual lines used by emcees in Berlin in the 1930s fit so nicely into our retelling. A great line from Werner Fink, who was emcee of Die Katakombe in Berlin, which we have incorporated into our show, is: “Yesterday we were closed, today we are open, if we are too open tomorrow we’ll be closed again the next day.” In our Cabaret, it’s said by our Emcee while he tears down the rainbow flag which, up until then, had been hanging with the Russian flag proudly across the room from it.

Another example of great pieces actually used by the emcees of 1930s Berlin is a song that we have given to Fräulein Schneider to the tune of Carmen‘s “Habanera.” The lyrics, by Friedrich Hollaender, a Jewish emcee of the time, originally went:

If it’s raining or if it’s hailing,
If there’s lightning, if it’s wet,
If it’s dark or if there’s thunder
If you freeze or if you sweat,
If it’s warm or if it’s cloudy,
If it thaws, if there’s a breeze,
If it drizzles, if it sizzles,
If you cough or if you sneeze:
It’s all the fault of all those Jews.
The Jews are all at fault for that.

But we have:

If it’s raining or if it’s hailing,
If there’s lightning, if it’s wet,
If it’s dark or if there’s thunder
If you freeze or if you sweat,
It’s all the fault of all those gays
The gays are all at fault for that
You ask me why the gays at fault
You just don’t get it, dear, they are at fault…
You disagree, then you’re at fault,
The gays are all at fault for that.

When the audience first hears the tune they go, “Oh, isn’t it funny?” or “Isn’t it sweet that they’re using the tune of that song we know?,” and then you hear the lyrics. So the song tricks you into not knowing whether to laugh and applaud or not.”

A thought-provoking take on the classic which will also soon be returning to Broadway with Alan Cumming in tow.


Alan Cumming in the 1998 Broadway revival of Cabaret

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You Have to Move On/ Il Faut Avancer

sundayparkparis

Theatre du Chatelet, renowned Paris institution headed by Jean-Luc Choplin, recently presented Stephen Sondheim & James Lapine’s award-winning and heartbreaking SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE. Lucky for those of us that weren’t able to hop on a plane to Paris during its run, the production was filmed and broadcast by Mezzo TV. And now, this new version is available to download for free, albeit for a very limited time.

The original Broadway production of SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, directed by James Lapine, starring Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters, was similarly filmed and quickly became a staple in the collector’s canon. For those of you who haven’t seen any of the original cast, or for those that could always use a refresher, enjoy the two duetting on “Move On.”


In this number, Dot appears to her great grandson (that of her lover George Seurat), also named George, who is struggling with his art

Look at what you want,
Not at where you are,
Not at what you’ll be-
Look at all the things you’ve done for me

World’s A Stage: Spotlight on Belarus

Theater was made to push the boundaries, but what happens when your country wants to maintain those artificial limits? One theatre group in Belarus has made a commitment from allowing their home to silence their (powerful) voices.

Belarus Free Theatre is an underground theatre group that operates primarily in secret, holding unofficial rehearsals and free performances in small private apartments, cafes, or wooded areas. Seen as theatrical vigilantes at constant risk of persecution, they constantly change their venues and have no specific theatrical home. Members of the theatre have been attacked by the police and held for their participation in the Belarus Free Theatre activities. The stage director and other associates were fired from their jobs at state-run theatres for their involvement in the movement.

beingharoldpinter

Being Harold Pinter at the mid-April 2007 conference Artist and Citizen: 50 Years of Performing Pinter, in England

The group was established in March 2005 by human rights activist, playwright and journalist, Nikolai Khalezin, and Natalia Koliada, a theatre producer and Khalezin’s wife. The group’s mission was to resist the overwhelming pressure and censorship of Belarus’ president, Alexander Lukashenka.

As the only modern theatre force in the country, the government is challenged by Belarus Free Theatre’s commitment to performing uncensored works. All other theatre is state-run, allowing the country to dictate the programming, resulting in a stale version of theatre which cannot appropriately discuss all aspects of contemporary life. The guerilla theatre group pushes for its creative freedom daily, risking their own security for the promise of truth in art.

storm

Belarus Free Theatre in the short play by Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, one of the 12 featured in ‘Eurepica. Challenge.’

On 22 August 2007, during the Free Theatre’s première of Edward Bond’s theatrical piece Eleven Vests, Belarusian special forces stormed a performance in a private apartment in Minsk, and arrested actors, directors, and audience members. The founder, Khalezin, has now unfortunately become accustomed to these surprises, stating that the police would regularly burst into performances with machine guns in order to demonstrate power. At this point he does not fear for himself, but does notice that it is taking its toll on those who have never been arrested before. He’s afraid that these brave audience members won’t come back. Regardless of the pressure, the show resumed the next day in one of the private houses outside of Minsk. Police took video of the event from the forest.

The next few years were moderately less tumultuous but on December 19, 2010, fifty thousand citizens took to the streets to protest what they believed to be the rigged election of Alexander Lukashenko. More than a thousand of those were beaten and arrested, including Artistic Director Natalia Koliada, along with other artistic figures.  At the Belarus Embassy in London, Ian McKellen and a number of leaders from the artistic community protested the arrests, bringing international attention to the issue. Natalia Koliada was released, while Nikolai Khalezin went into hiding, where he remains.

The turmoil  has been worth it for those in the ensemble, almost all of whom have served time behind bars. Notable playwrights (Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter, Václav Havel, and Arthur Kopit) have supported the Free Theatre, with Pinter himself  so impressed by their biographical work [Being Harold Pinter] that he gave the troupe rights to perform any of his plays for free. 


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World’s A Stage: Spotlight on Sri Lanka

The theatre scene in Sri Lanka has been long in the making. As a country with roots in Theravada Buddhism, many believed that it was vital to tend toward solitary contemplation versus congregational practices or participation in community life. Thus, theatre arts were hard to come by until the 1950s when a serious scene began to develop. Local theatre has since become a melange of early folk ritual, dance drama, and Western theatre, creating a medium unlike any other.

The most recent hit out of the country is a new musical by Jehan Aloysius entitled ‘Rag’ which grapples with the divisive practice of ragging – a ritual seen by some as an equalizing activity, and by others as worse than bullying and hazing. Ragging is typically enforced by senior students on younger ones and includes forced consumption of alcohol, insects, and/or chemicals, physical exertion to the point of organ failure, and an assortment of humiliating activities meant to break the newcomers upon their arrival.

The show’s creator, director, composer and lead actor, Aloysius, has been developing the show for more than ten years, sparked by his own experiences with ragging at university. When Aloysius first received his university acceptance letter he was filled with dread and hid it from his mother. Four months later she found it, and off to school he went.

During his eventual ragging, he was spared some of the worst practices but he says that his classmates underwent processes worse than what he could have imagined. Some of these events have made their way into the show. While the show circles instances of rape, discrimination, shame and suicide, the writer’s efforts to reveal the darker side of university life ultimately provide for a cathartic experience.

Aloysius sought out a cast who had experienced ragging first-hand and after auditioning 250 people, he assembled his lead cast of 12. The story follows the creator’s character, Joseph, who starts a non-violent anti-ragging movement which runs into opposing forces who say it must be violently resisted. The result is an empowering musical that’s breaking boundaries abroad.

The show’s standing ovations and rapturous praise stand testament to the idea that creative expression continues to be one of the best mediums for processing struggle.
If something goes wrong, make art.

World’s A Stage: Spotlight on France

When thinking of Mozart, the notion of early rock-star may not come to mind. A child prodigy, yes. A whiz on the ivories, no doubt. But emo-rock sex symbol? The creative team behind Mozart l’Opera Rock certainly thought so; they re-envisioned his life for the stage and took France by storm.

The musical, a mashup of new pop-rock and traditional Mozart compositions, premiered in late 2009. Though not as critically well-received as some other tuners out of France in the recent years(including Notre Dame de Paris, Le Petit Prince, and Le Roi Soleil) the show’s glittering reimagining of the 18th century composer’s life devloped a large fan following and went on to tour through Europe and the rest of France.  

Take a glance at this cheeky single that became one of the show’s most popular anthems. The song follows Wolfgang as he attempts to distribute his music and find a job in Paris. The lyrics dabble with sexual wordplay (somewhat evident, though undoubtedly less subtle, in the English subtitles available on this version). Enjoy this stroll down anachronism lane with Mr. Mozart himself.

 

World’s A Stage: Spotlight on New Zealand

Because you can’t take me anywhere without me clambering to check out a show, New Zealand has become the next stop on our global theatre tour.

The day before I left for the trip, I scoured the theatre results in Wellington until I happened upon the title “Chekhov in Hell.” Intrigued, it only took a quick description to sell me on a Saturday night ticket:

“Anton Chekhov, playwright, author and pitiless observer of Russian society, awakes from a hundred-year coma and finds himself in twenty-first century London”

That, and the promo photos:

This show at the Circa Theatre, one of the seven professional venues in New Zealand, takes a careful lens to our modern day habits. Illuminating without criticising, it asks the audience to consider how we may be inhibiting our lives by trying to add more to them. Obviously this applies to the technoaddiction many face, but the more interesting discussions were those of gastronomy and fashion.

Chekhov tries to get a bite to eat at a restaurant and is presented with an assortment of molecular gastronomy “delights” and deconstructed food items. The chef seems stunned when the Russian passes on a dish of chicken sashimi. And while this plate of raw chicken is a hyperbole on what’s found in mod restaurants nowadays, it still begs the question of where to draw the line between food that’s an elevated art form, and food that’s simply no longer food.

The show’s playwright shows a bit more teeth during Chekhov’s encounter with the high-class fashion world. A designer invents sexist outfits on the spot for some of his models as Chekhov stands by and wonders aloud how he gets them to adopt such trends. The designer launches into a self-assured monologue about how he can suggest a look, and consumers will lap it up. Further, he suggests that people like being told what to do, making them easily dominable as very few want to take authority over their own lives.

The play itself had some very thoughtful moments and the show does not offer any prescriptions in its prose. Leaving the audience to decide for themselves whether our modern ways are inevitable, worth amending, or simply not up to Chekhov’s standards.

While I left wishing could hear more from Chekhov, this show still makes anachronism undeniably hip.

Image Credit: Circa Theatre

World’s A Stage: Spotlight on Germany

You’ve never seen Shakespeare like this my friends. The Berliner Ensemble is reknowned for their aggressive and direct method of performing. Screaming at the audience? Yup. Mashing food into their face as they perform? Happens all the time. Breaking down that 4th wall? Each and every chance they get.

That’s why in 2009, when the group tackled Shakespeare’s 400 year old sonnets, the result was anything but traditional. This incredibly distinctive production from director Bob Wilson with music by Rufus Wainwright featured gender reversal, shadowplay, unforgettable makeup,  and of course nods to Brecht and Weill (of Threepenny Opera fame).

Take a look at how the Berliner Ensemble tackles the world of Shakespeare and instantly invites you to join them on their hallucinatory ride. Something about the coarseness of the performing style met with the Bard’s infamous words seems like the perfect oxymoron, and yet this production succeeds because it challenges any preexisting notions of Shakespeare’s work.

World’s A Stage: Spotlight on Russia

What do a bare-chested Vladimir Putin stroking the backside of an Olympic gymnast, a Botox overdose, and a partial brain transplant all have to do with each other? They can all be seen in a sold-out, groundbreaking new staging of a play in Moscow. This is what happens when politics and theatre collide in Russia.

The play, titled “Berlusputin,” premiered ahead of the March 4 polls for presidency (Putin has now won back the presidency). The show draws inspiration from the incendiary internet gossip swirling around the election and breaks almost every remaining taboo about the Russian leader’s personal life. The text is an adaption of “L’anomalo Bicefalo,” a work by an Italian playwright.

A glimpse into this unique and enchanting evening of theatre:

  • This production imagines what might happen if half of former Italian prime minister and Putin buddy Silvio Berlusconi’s brain was transplanted into Putin’s head after an accident.
  • The show performs in the ground-breaking Teatr.doc house, an intense black box space in the middle of Moscow renowned for its hard-hitting political plays
  • The actor playing Putin wears foam muscles strapped to his chest; the actress playing opposite him devoutly dons a headscarf to portray his wife Lyudmila, who got a little too close to her spiritual advisor at a monastery.
  • Putin tries a little too hard not to look his age and the resulting Botox overdose turns Putin into Dobby the house elf from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. (Putin was  reportedly offended by widespread comments on his resemblance to Dobby when the the film depiction came out back in 2003.)

The Internet rumors of Putin’s Botox use, the mucky situtation with his estranged wife, and his hardcore crush on Olympic rhythmic gymnast Alina Kabayeva all were fodder for the play – much to the demise of the state, and much to the delight of almost everyone else in the country. The director has promised that they will continue to do the play as long as Putin is in power.

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World’s A Stage: Spotlight on Austria

As we continue around the globe, we find ourselves meeting up with some of the most incredible set design you’ve ever seen – in Bregenz, Austria.

The city is known for its long tradition of Opera on the Lake, productions that take place on a floating stage anchored in Lake Constance. The opera stages are built every two years and must house not only the performance space for the actors, but also the costume and dressing rooms, machine rooms, and the orchestra pit for the Vienna Symphony Orchestra.

The set must strictly follow the following provisions:

  • The floating stage must be at least 2/3rds larger than a normal stage
  • The house seats 6,800. Everyone in the audience (even those in the nosebleed seats) must be able to see the stage action.
  • The set construction has to allow for quick and silent scene changes (there is no curtain)
  • The stage has to be able to survive extreme weather conditions during the two-year production runs including thunderstorms, harsh rains, and up to 20 inches of snow and below freezing temperatures
  • The set must weigh as little as possible. Designers have to consider that while concrete, brick and solid wood are weatherproof, they may prove too heavy to float

Take a look at these incredible stages through the years. Talk about a brilliant design team.

Die Zauberflote (Mozart) | 1985-1986

The Flying Dutchman | 1989-1990

A Masked Ball (Verdi) | 1999-2000

La Bohème | 2001-2002

West Side Story | 2003-2004

Tosca | 2007-2008

Aida | 2009-2010

André Chénier | 2011-2012

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World’s A Stage: Spotlight on Czech Republic

Next up in the series on theatre trends from around the globe is the Czech Republic – specifically Prague.

I’ll never forget walking down the streets of the city and being taken aback when I thought I stumbled on an incredibly racist form of theatre.

Turns out all the signs I had been seeing for “Black Theatre” weren’t advertising some sort of event to rival the old World Fairs of the 1800s. “Black Theatre” is shorthand for “Black Light Theatre,” a theatrical style for which Prague has become famous.
Black Light Theatre performances are characterized by their use of a small black box theatre and…wait for it…black lights. That’s right ladies and gents: theatrical productions specifically done using glow-in-the-dark suits and black lights. In addition to the small, darkened stage, fluorescent costumes and fantastically flattering UV light, the technique is noted for its expressive artistry of dance, mime and acrobatics.

Little known fact: this form of theatre originated from Asia and can be found in a number of places around the world. It’s just become a specialty of Prague nowadays.

Now true story – when I was traveling through Prague with a friend of mine about four years ago, we passed by a small sign advertising “CATS- THE MUSICAL – BLACK THEATRE.” All in caps. Just like that. The sheer lack of subtlety (and my general intrigue as to how they were possibly going to pull off one of the world’s most tech-heavy shows in a theatre that could not have been bigger than a 7-11) led me to force my friend to buy a ticket with me so we could return to the theatre that evening to check it out.

I don’t think I’ve ever cried-laughed so much during a show in my entire life. Easily 90% of the show was meowing sounds and squiggly arm choreo. An ensemble of six lovingly butchered every memory I had of the musical prior to this performance. Each song was a variation of Webber’s version: sped up, melodies slightly altered, and accompanied by a blaring MIDI track that I’m pretty sure had been used since the show had first reached commercial fame in the early ’90s. The ladies wore white unitards that glowed brilliantly as they followed around the main “Tom Cat.”  A little taste of the lyrical genius: “Prague is the city of love/ and the end is full of dreams/ not to be a cat is unheard of!”

Now, I don’t know if we caught a show in one of the off-the-beaten-track theatres or what, but the historic tradition of beautiful “dance, mime and acrobatics” didn’t make it into this production. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the show.  I loved it. It was able to transcend its horrendous beginnings and reach that sort of  mystic level, when something gets so terribad you literally can’t look away. All you can do is declare it the best show you’ve ever seen. In a “Black Theatre.” In Prague.

Perhaps the “Tom Cat” said it best, when he closed the show with the line “Ladies and Gentlemen, there haven’t been any better show!”


Image Credit: J. Randall. More of his stuff here

World’s A Stage: Spotlight on Japan

Here’s the start of a new series highlighting theatre trends from around the globe. This big old world is a fascinating place – let’s take a look beyond our own country’s border shall we?

First up, Japan:

Nothing better than ladies strutting their stuff on stage right? The gals of Takarazuka, Japan sure think so.

Promo Poster – Casablanca

The Takarazuka Revue (宝塚歌劇団) is a Japanese all-female musical theater troupe. Ladies play every role in larger-than-life, Broadway style productions. All of the women in the troupe work for the Hankyu Takarazuka rail line.

5 Reasons why the Troupe is Fascinating:

-       The Revue was founded in 1913 as a way to boost train ticket sales and draw additional business to the town. The company  now performs for 2.5 million people per year.

-       The troupe is highly competitive and only accepts 40 to 50 girls each year from the thousands across Japan that audition. Once accepted into the super strict program, the women are trained in music, dance, and acting, and are given seven-year contracts.

-       Within the first year, teachers decide who will be best suited for the male and female roles. Those playing a man’s role, otokoyaku, cut their hair short, take on a more masculine role in the classroom, and speak in the masculine form.

-       This stuff is popular with the ladies. The otokoyaku represents the woman’s idealized man without the roughness or need to dominate, the “perfect” man who can not be found in the real world. It is these male-roles that offer an escape from the strict, gender-bound real roles lauded in Japanese society.

-       They often adapt classic Western novels, films, and musicals. Just a few of their past productions include Tale of Two Cities, Wuthering Heights, Guys and Dolls, Kiss Me Kate, Phantom, Sound of Music, Oklahoma!, The Scarlet Pimpernel and Ernest in Love (an adaptation of The Importance of Being Ernest).

Clip of “The Muffin Song” from the aforementioned Ernest in Love.
At the end of this clip, you can catch a glimpse of the actors nearly breaking on stage.

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