Some thoughts on “Cabaret”

This summer, I was privileged to see a production of Cabaret twice at Saint Petersburg Florida’s freeFall Theatre. The production opens with the year 1945 projected on the doors of Fraulein Schneider’s rooming house. A newsreel announces the end of World War II while the Master of Ceremonies mounts the dimly lit Kit Kat Club stage. A recording of the monologue that Clifford will speak at the end of the show plays, and the Emcee begins to weep. The cast (except for Clifford) quietly surrounds the stage. When the Emcee recognizes the ghosts, he sings “Willkommen,” the lights come up, and the years projected on the wall roll back to 1929.

The closing scene echoes the opening. As Cliff recites his monologue, the remaining characters again surround the stage. During the reprise of “Willkommen,” a Nazi banner unfurls behind the Emcee. He rips it down in the moment that the stage goes dark and assumes a position and posture similar to his lamentation in the first scene. By connecting the story’s past and present with a futile gesture that comes too late, the production highlights the way the Emcee’s apathy toward and acquiescence to the rise of fascism makes him complicit in Nazi violence.

The Emcee’s apathy is clear enough. In Act I, Kit Kat boy Herman begins to sing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” and the Emcee, at first, joins him. But when the song turns dark, the Emcee yields to Herman and lets him finish alone. Act II’s “If You Could See Her” demonstrates that he understands the repulsiveness of Nazi politics, but he does nothing to oppose them. Although the song “I Don’t Care Much” echoes and mocks Sally and Clifford’s relationship, it could also be an anthem of his political attitude.

We might overlook this weakness if it were not for what comes moments after “I Don’t Care Much,” while Sally and Clifford argue over the political situation in Germany. In the background, at about the moment that Sally tells Clifford, “It’s only politics; it has nothing to do with us,” the Emcee kisses Kit Kat Club boys Victor and Bobby, wraps their biceps in Nazi armbands, and sends them out into the audience. By this act, he transforms them into the thugs who brutalize Clifford.

Clifford is beaten for striking the Nazi courier Ernst Ludwig. Victor and Bobby emerge from the tables near the stage, drag him to the side, and beat him while Sally’s big number, “Cabaret” begins. In a way, this staging makes even the audience complicit in Nazi violence. The thugs have come from our ranks. We can hear and see the beating take place. But we turn away from it, straining to hear the one number we all came for, and pretend that the violence isn’t happening. If we give it any thought, it’s, “That’s really distracting. I can’t hear the song.”

FreeFall’s Cabaret eerily echoes current political trends. In much the same way that Ludwig tells Fraulein Schneider that Herr Schultz “is NOT a German,” American politicians and commentators proclaim that Muslims “do not share American values” and that only conservatives are “real Americans.” They denigrate the poor, and indeed nearly half of Americans, as “parasites” and “moochers,” dehumanizing 47% of the country. FreeFall Theatre asks us to consider the implications of remaining quiescent in the face of this repulsive behavior and to confront it for the evil that it is.

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