Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Fruits of the Fuhrer

(Laura Perrotta is Fraulein Schneider and John Woodson is Herr Schultz in Great Lake Theater's production of "Cabaret" at the Hanna Theater in PlayhouseSquare. Photo by Roger Mastroianni.)
Cleveland Play House and Great Lakes Theater both commenced their season with whiffs of ol' Deutschland.They requisitioned works that owe their very existence to the machinations of the Fuhrer.

If Hitler hadn't wrought his havoc, many iconic masterpieces would never have come into existence. Humphrey Bogart would have had no excuse to woo Ingrid Bergman in "Casablanca," and a young Englishman named Christopher Isherwood wouldn't have had the opportunity to dally with a manic young English eccentric who later would be turned into Sally Bowles as the Nazis were coming to power. Without these "Berlin Stories," there would have been no subsequent "Cabaret," no Oscar for Liza Minnelli and Great Lakes would have had to resort to - horror, horror - yet a third production of "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)."

Similarly, if Bertolt Brecht, the subversive librettist of "The Threepenny Opera," hadn't enraged the Nazis, he would not have had the chance to flee the homeland for the wilds of Hollywood. Thus, he would never had been able to reshape his opus about Galileo for the magnificent girth of Charles Laughton. And 64 years later, Cleveland Play House would not be moving to its new digs, the renovated Allen Theatre, with its most fully realized production since "Of Thee I Sing" almost two decades ago.

(Adolf Hitler, without whom these works would never have been written.)
Both theaters have taken decidedly different approaches to their season openers. Kander and Ebb's musical, "Cabaret," like egg foo young, is constantly being reinvented, and no matter what recipe always remains wildly popular.

"The Life of Galileo" is one of those academically worshipped classics that rarely leaves the shelf. It is one of those massive work, if done successfully, guaranteed to enhance any ambitious theater company's reputation, though not fill the coffers.

Great Lakes' "Cabaret" has the disadvantage of being a bargain-basement knockoff of an haute-couture gown. The production is an admitted recreation of Sam Mendes' 1998 New York revival. Director Victoria Bussert is better known for effects than shaping felicitious performances, resulting in a smudged ghost of Mendes' original.

The evening is not without grace notes. One of the joys of a local company is watching a performer grow with the years. From the beginning, Laura Perrota has been a stunning stage presence, but as time has passed she has taken on the translucent quality of fine crystal. As the world-weary Fraulein Schneider, Perrotta radiates a lifetime of loneliness transformed into wondrous fulfillment when Herr Schultz (the Gepetto-like John Woodson) offers escape through marriage. Their tender rendition of Kander and Ebb's exquisite "Married" is the evening's oasis in a desert of dime-store decadence.

In a representation of the Third Reich as menacing as a junior-high Halloween party, only Sara M. Bruner's George Grosz-like Fraulein Kost evokes the moral rot taking root in Germany. Unfortunately, these three stellar performances illuminate only a fraction of the prolonged proceedings.

Painfully, we have to deal with Eduardo Placer's grotesque, baby-like attempts at squalor as the Master of Ceremonies. Even more vexing is Jodi Dominick's excruciating Sally Bowles. In the Mendes revival, Sally was turned into a charming but pitiful neurotic. Dominick, however, has come up with a performance so shrill that it brings to mind the screeching violins of Bernard Herrmann's classic score for "Psycho." Ultimately, her offense against the title tune brings to mind Norman Bates' slicing and dicing of Janet Leigh in the shower. This is one "Willkommen" that is hardly welcome.

(Paul Whitworth plays the title role in "The Life of Galileo" at the Cleveland Play House. Photo by Roger Mastroianni.)
There are many parallels between Brecht and his Galileo. Both were genius scoundrels who not only redefined the universe but were also magnificent escape artists. "Galileo" is one of those plays that demonstrates that great art has a grain of autobiographical truth. The title character was a 17th-century scientist who was able to survive the wrath of the Pope and the Inquisition. Twentieth-century playwright Brecht escaped the Nazis and the McCarthy era and took advantage of almost every opportunity and artist he ever met.

Play House artistic director Michael Bloom, utilizing Brechtian wisdom, handed this production to a director, Michael Donald Edwards, who not only understands the playwright's epic theater, but also how to make it fresh and new. Edwards, employing Brecht's idea of alienation, fills the stage with hip-hop clergy, slides of corrupt Cleveland politicians and Gershwin's "Fascinatin' Rhythm." These techniques, which have been overused in everything from Bayreuth to Shakespeare, here seems newly minted, keeping the work as current as a broadcast on CNN and as exciting as a carnival.

Most importantly, the production's center is Paul Whitworth's luminous Galileo, who is indeed the heavenly body around which everything spins. It's rare when a theater is able to turn a masterpiece into a reflection of the heavens.

"Cabaret" runs at the Hanna Theatre through Sunday, Oct. 30. For tickets, call 216-241-6000.

"The Life of Galileo" runs at the Allen Theatre through Sunday, Oct. 9. For tickets, call 216-241-6000.

No comments:

Post a Comment