By Erin Fleming
No Stakes Theater Project has challenged itself to take on the big demands of Cabaret and distill it down to its essence while remaining true to the company’s mission.
And it meets this challenge pretty well.
The company describes itself as being committed to producing plays that give a voice to the voiceless, exploring the world through social and cultural perspectives that lack representation and representing women–of all ages, races and sizes–as complex, thoughtful, fully-drawn human beings. It’s an inclusive and generous philosophy that seems well-fitted to apply to a show that so hauntingly depicts what happens when society strays away from those ideals.
Cabaret is directed by Artistic Director Erin Shea Brady and features Artistic Associate Rebecca Sohn as Sally Bowles. It is the first production under No Stakes’ Actor Initiative, which aims to overcome the limitations of typecasting.
As Brady explains, “We’re opening up a door to actors who want to explore roles outside of their traditional ‘type.’ I firmly believe that if we go outside of our comfort zone, we’re forced to play around in pockets of our brain that we haven’t explored, and that’s what helps us grow.”
Sohn, for example, might not be quite as young or as waifish as the typical Sally Bowles, and it’s interesting to see what another kind of actress brings to such a role, and how that seasons her relationships with other characters, including the Emcee, atypically played here by an actress rather than an actor.
The initiative also fosters the collaboration between Brady and Sohn (who worked together on No Stakes’ 2015 production of The Rise and Fall of Little Voice) with choreographer Mollyanne Nunn, whose approach highlights the company’s commitment to body positivity.
Cabaret is based upon Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, which chronicles the author’s experiences in Berlin during the end of the Weimar Republic, a licentious world that was flourishing in decadence while Hitler’s ultra-conservative regime was taking over Germany.
The story centers on the unlikely friendship turned romance between the infamous Sally Bowles (based on Isherwood’s real life muse, struggling actress Jean Ross), the boozy and promiscuous club singer who enchants Cliff Bradshaw. Cliff arrives in Berlin a wide-eyed, naive American in search for adventure to inspire his next novel, and is quickly seduced into the city’s lascivious, libidinous nightlife. “It’s so tawdry and terrible,” he says, “and everyone’s having such a great time.”
Cory Hardin is terrific as Cliff, breathing life into a tricky role that often comes off bland and reactive in comparison to the more flamboyant and menacing characters around him. Tyler Anthony Smith also excels as Ernst, the polite, endearing German who befriends Cliff and promises to show him the real Berlin. Hardin and Smith bring a natural chemistry and humor to their scenes, making them some of the strongest moments in the show, and nicely setting up the horrifying revelations to come about Ernst.
The 1972 film starring Liza Minnelli and Michael York and directed by choreographer Bob Fosse won just about every Oscar aside from Best Picture (beaten out by The Godfather) and has its own well-deserved following. Fans of the film might be a bit confused by the differing subplots and supporting characters in the stage version, but they’ll recognize the club scenes and some of the greatest Kander and Ebb tunes of all time: “Mein Herr,” “Don’t Tell Mama,” “Willkommen,” “Maybe This Time,” “Money,” “Married” and of course the titular “Cabaret.”
Director Brady scales this production down to a small, intimate, sparsely dressed stage, taking full advantage of the spatial limitations of the set to blur the lines between what happens in the Kit Kat Club where Sally performs, the boarding house where Cliff takes a room and the rest of Berlin. Dancers spill out into the audience, the Kit Kat orchestra remains on stage and interacts with characters outside of the club, actors’ exits and entrances overlap, scenes fade into each other almost cinematically rather than ending. All of this action is accompanied by a four piece orchestra slightly out of step with one another, often sliding into dissonance. The overall effect is deliberately dream-like and unsettling. The audience is put a little bit on edge, and appropriately so. In spite of the distracting shabby glamour of the Kit Kat Club, Berlin is moments away from falling.
Hannah Starr is a charmingly enigmatic Emcee with an incredible voice. Is she playing the emcee as an androgynous man, or as a woman in drag? It’s unclear and it’s great that it’s unclear. Welcome to Berlin.
The doomed romance between Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz is made all the more tragic by the real sweetness brought to these roles by Rosalind Hurwitz and Greg Mills, and it’s a treat when Mills shoos away the musicians and takes over the keyboard to accompany himself for a few bars on Married.
It is Mollyanne Nunn’s stylized, sultry choreography which anchors the entire performance, utilizing every inch of the space and emphasizing the humor and commentary in the music. It’s clear that she has worked hard to empower the dancers to reveal their individual characters through movement, and has been equally as diligent in creating a cohesive ensemble. This is never more evident than in the increasingly manic “Money,” in which the Emcee leads the Kit Kat dancers in a kind of mechanical frenzy. The coordinated precision is so much fun to watch, and also so frightening as it calls to mind images of synchronized, jackbooted soldiers. Indeed, fun and frightening is a great way to sum up this production.
No Stakes Theatre Project presents “Cabaret” through May 6 at Berger Park Coach House, 6205 N. Sheridan Road, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Liz Scheiner