Between Germany’s defeat in World War I and Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, The Weimar Republic exploded with artistic and intellectual experimentation. Politics, money, prejudice, and sex became predominant themes in the chaotic environment, all grotesquely satirized by a darkening culture. German Kabaretts flourished, offering stories, jokes, songs and dancing ripe with sexual innuendo. Nudity became common. Those once forced to hide offending orientation, flaunted it.
Many Americans were made aware of the period’s club culture by Emil Jannings’ 1930 film The Blue Angel starring Marlene Deitrich or, more likely, Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories from which the musical and film, Cabaret derived. Mad Jenny, aka Jenny Lee Mitchell, invokes the style, content, and context of one of these kabaretts, in both English and German. Her well researched, ardent presentation will, at times, make you forget where and when you are.
Emerging in slim cut, man’s suiting and a top hat, hair sharply to one side, Jenny kibitzes with the audience on her way to the stage. (Pushy interaction was common.) “Life’s a Swindle” she sings, Papa swindles/ Mama swindles/ Grandmama’s a lying thief… (Mischa Spoliansky/Marcellus Schiffer; English lyrics: Jeremy Lawrence) Contralto intermittently and purposefully wobbles in the emphasizing manner of the period.
A reference to Donald Trump in Swindle is one of several interjected into the show. Except for the later, politically updated lyric to “Chuck All the Men” (Friedrich Hollander/Claire Waldoff; English lyric: Jeremy Lawrence), I found these gratuitous and distracting. Calling out current, rather scary parallels is unnecessary for that resonance to be apparent, but at least this song is clever and self contained.
It’s March 1923. Hitler has announced he would vote for the antisemitic Henry Ford should Ford run for president. Jenny offers brief, salient facts which help orient us to social ambiance. She also sporadically quotes artist George Grosz, particularly known for his biting visual work depicting Germany in the 1920s.
Mid performance of the aggressive, nasal “There’s Nothing Quite Like Money” (Hanns Eisler/ Bertolt Brecht; English lyrics: Eric Bentley), Jenny rips off literally half her costume to reveal a short, red sequined dress. She’s now half man, half woman. How, she asks incredulously, can Jill love Jack if he’s poor?! One side of her caresses the other while grabbing for an elusive bill.
Jenny wraps a black velvet coat over divided apparel, then offers a brutal musical ‘discussion’ between a desperate, destitute pregnant woman and her unsympathetic doctor. As this ends, with dazed examination of a wire coat hanger on which, it appears, she fantastically plays music, the club is stone silent.
The next song describes histrionic loss of what seems to be a woman’s lover, but turns out to be her ‘pussy.’ “…whoever you love, no one should judge you.” (Remember Kander and Ebb’s “If You Could See Her” from Cabaret in which the emcee is in love with a gorilla?)
Two contemporary numbers find their way into the show masked by arrangements and direction that belie recent composition. Of these, “Love Is a Stranger” (Annie Lennox/David A. Stewart) is particularly effective. Manifest as a duet (with Maria Dessena on accordion and vocals) sung by two women riding in an open car, it might here be about an obsessive same sex relationship. Love is a danger/Of a different kind/To take you away/And leave you far behind…When Jenny lifts one end of her long, red scarf and then the back of her companion’s hair to flutter it behind, we’re captivated.
The actress chats with her audience, referring to the “dingy little room” in which she’s playing, offering drinks tickets to anyone who made the effort to come from Bushwick or Inwood. Though I understand the desire for a little patter, I’d’ve preferred to remain in the conjured kabarett rather than jolted back to the present.
This is followed by exotic dancer, Miss Ekaterna, with a guest turn as Anita Berber. The artist strips down to panties, pasties, and black hose in a somewhat drunken manner while usurping drinks from and draping herself over surprised patrons. She also theatrically provides oral sex to a long stemmed rose. Though she and the rose are wickedly graphic, I find other movement clumsy and without heat. Upon commenting this, however, I was told by someone more knowledgeable, that Berber herself was more shocking than sensual. Guests in future will vary.
“On Suicide” (Hanns Eisler/Bertolt Brecht; English lyric: Eric Bentley from The Good Person of Szechwan) is harsh and hopeless. “In March 1943, the Polish government in exile released the first statement about Auschwitz.” As you look more closely/People and things tend to look threadbare and pointless…Jerry DeVore’s bass sounds like something out of a horror film while Ric Becker’s trombone creates palpable, gothic wind. One shivers.
“When Hitler came to power, many artists fled Berlin. Others were taken away.” Here Jenny introduces audience member Lily Reiser who not only survived a series of concentration camps including the Czech fortress Terezin, but was on a death march when the war ended. Reiser comments that “Performers gave us hope and courage to finish the oppressors and be able to go on again.”
“An Optimistic Song”, with lyrics written in Terezin, translates, in part, as He who bears his torture with faith in the future…don’t lose your sense of humor, you need a sense of humor… (Jaroslav Jezek/Frantisek Komanitz; English lyric: Lisa Peschel)
On each table is a sheet with two verses of “Leben Ohne Liebe Kannst Du Nicht” (Mischa Spoliansky/Robert Gilbert) the homosexual anthem in which we’re invited to join:
We are the ones who are not like the others,/ For we don’t love the way they think is good./They shut us out and call us not their brothers,/Living their boring lives as they think they should.
We do not know the hate and fear they show us,/Even though they do not hold us dear./We love the nights of lavender and freedom,/We are the others and proud to be queer.
How much of humanity now suffers prejudice for provoked by race, religion, sex, class? Changing a few words, this powerful sentiment is unfortunately as pertinent today as when it was written.
Costumes are splendid. Gowns, wraps, and headgear reflect art and photos.
Director Patrice Miller has done an excellent job evoking mood with gesture and expression. The show is dense, but well paced, its numbers effectively sequenced. If only Jenny would look AT her audience more often, toying with us, personally challenging beliefs/conscience!
An absolutely terrific band features Maria Dessena on piano, accordion, and vocals, Ric Becker playing mercurial trombone, and Jerry DeVore expertly communing with a 5-string bass. Outstanding arrangements by Dessena evoke the era like a time machine.
This is an ambitious, well realized presentation, both deeply sobering and entertaining. Recommended.
Performance Photos by Daniel Murtagh
Opening: Mad Jenny
Love Und Greed plays the first Monday of every month through June 6, 2016
178 Second Avenue at 11th Street
Dinner is served both in a front room and the intimate club space.