Sunday, April 2, 2017

Hier ist das Dunkele Leben

Hier ist das Dunkele Leben 

By Tom Wachunas

  'Lady Peaceful, ' 'Lady Happy, ' /That's what I long to be /
All the odds are in my favor /Something's bound to begin,/
It's got to happen, happen sometime /Maybe this time I'll win…
   - from “Maybe This Time”, lyrics for the musical, Cabaret, by Fred Ebb

   Willkommen. Welcome, to 1933 Berlin. The Weimar Republic is in shambles, the Nazis are on the rise. Should you be wondering how the stage production of Cabaret (the 1998 Broadway revival version) at Players Guild Theatre stacks up against the 1972 film starring Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey, you might as well compare “Mack the Knife” to “A Spoonful of Sugar.” 

   In the black-box surrounds of the Guild’s arena theater, some audience members have been seated at tables on the set as patrons of the seedy Kit Kat Klub cabaret, schmoozing with the dancers. The floor is painted with the faded words, “Hier is das Leben Schön” – Here is the beautiful life – an irony if ever there was one. For the life that unfolds in and out of this murky setting might better be called dunkele – dark. Here is an indelicate, ambiguous place and time, where definitions and boundaries of sexuality and cultural identity - and the expectations and judgements we bring to these realms - mingle and indeed collide.

   Director Jonathan Tisevich has once again demonstrated his uncanny aptitude for identifying and drawing out those ineffable differences between merely acting a part and being wholly invested in it. His entire cast here is an electrifying entity, a vessel of authentic humanity – humans making us feel…human. We’re not just entertained. We’re immersed.  
   An American would-be novelist, Cliff Bradshaw (Matthew Heppe), arrives in Berlin and finds a room in a dowdy boarding house run by Fraulein Schneider (Wendy Shantz). At the Kit Kat Klub, where all the lewd entertainment is introduced by the devilish Emcee (Olivia Wimberly), he meets the flirtatious English showgirl, Sally Bowles (Sarah Marie Young), and soon enough a rocky romance ensues.

   As Cliff, Matthew Heppe is a remarkably agile and emotionally magnetic presence. With disarming ease he navigates between giddy infatuation with, then ardent desire for Sally, and ultimately his horror at the looming evil of the Nazis, forcing a bitter retreat from not-so-magical Berlin.

   Speaking of magic, I had to wonder… where in the known universe does Olivia Wimberly come from? Her portrayal of Emcee is downright otherworldly. Uttering hilarious, throaty pronouncements replete with double entendre, when she stomps and struts about the stage, even dancing on stage with audience members,  it’s just that – HER stage (or would HIS be more accurate?). Haughty, naughty, taunting, and flaunting, she’s equal parts fresh air and the lingering odor of biting sarcasm. 

     Sally Bowles is arguably the most complex of all the characters here. At once damaged and defiant, fragile and fierce, confused and confident, she is swept up in a practically epic struggle to reconcile her sordid past and promiscuous present  with the possibility of understanding and finding real love. To this role, the alluring Sarah Marie Young brings startling depth, delivering an altogether gripping portrait. Her singing doesn’t display much in the way of a soaring falsetto or breathtaking tremolo. But this apparent lack of flashy bravura in no way diminishes the emotive power of her singing. In fact, it seems intentional, and as such it’s a distinct enhancement. When she sings “Maybe This Time,” with its heartrending reach for hope, or “Cabaret,” a gritted-teeth anthem spewed from the deepest recesses of bitter resentment and frustration, we’re hearing something really compelling, beyond mere technique. This is pure, albeit tortured soul in the truest sense.

   For a brief time, genuine love grows between Wendy Schanz, playing landlady Fraulein Schneider, and her Jewish tenant, Herr Schulz, played by Ralph Cooley. Both Schanz and Cooley - who is particularly memorable for his unreasonable optimism amidst all this stϋrm und drang - are thoroughly endearing in their tenderness. It’s made all the more heartbreaking as their romance is doomed by the murderous dictates of Nazi persecution, embodied by the increasingly menacing stance of Ernst Ludwig, played by Jacob Sustersic.

   The ensemble dancing, choreographed by Michael Lawrence Akers, exudes a tribal intensity that oozes, at times, an almost comical sensuality if not outright lascivious glee. And the superb live orchestra conducted by Steve Parsons is equally invigorating. 

   At the end of his painful and cathartic odyssey, Cliff, on his journey back to America, pens the first words of his elusive novel: "There was a cabaret, and there was a master of ceremonies ... and there was a city called Berlin, in a country called Germany ... and it was the end of the world.”  

   With a Kit Kat paddy whack, give the folks a bone, to chew the meat on their way home. Willkommen. Welcome to 1933 Berlin or, if you will, to here and now.

    CABARET, (for mature audiences only) at Canton Players Guild Theatre, 1001 Market Avenue N., Canton, Ohio / THROUGH APRIL 15, 2017 / Shows Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. / Single Tickets: $27; 17 and younger, $19; Seniors $24 – additional performance on Saturday, April 15 at 2 p.m. / available at 330-453-7617, or 

   PHOTOS, by Micheal Lawrence Akers, from top: 1.Sarah Marie Young as Sally Bowles / 2. Matthew Heppe and Sarah Marie Young / 3. Olivia Wimberly as Emcee / 4. Wendy Schanz and Ralph Cooley / 5. Ensemble / 6. graphite drawing by me

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