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“Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome” goes the opening invitation of “Cabaret.” Staged in a makeshift nightclub, a new Portland revival of the rowdy, bawdy Broadway show is a visual feast, its 12-member ensemble adorned in colorful corsets, pasties and harnesses, flirting with the crowd when their bodies are not writhing in ecstatic contortions.
Since its original premiere in 1966, “Cabaret” has relied on a deft sleight of hand, luring its audiences with racy spectacle before gut-punching them with the play’s central tale — how the people of Berlin failed to respond to warning signs as the Nazi Party rose to power in 1930s Germany. Here, it’s more than a historical footnote.
“This isn’t a period piece anymore,” artistic director David Surkin said about doing the politically charged play today. “It’s the reality around us.”
Opening last weekend and playing through August, the Portland company Cast Aside Productions has re-mounted the musical theater touchstone with choices that lodge it in today’s political and cultural climate. Their show is cast entirely with women and nonbinary actors — unlike the original — who play up its themes of gendered identity, authoritarianism and power dynamics. When they’re not Cabaret’s Kit Kat Girls, the actors play masculine roles, in some scenes wearing dildos strapped to their bellies or phallic balloons twisted around their waists.
“We wanted to explore this hypersexualized show about power but through the lens of people who are experiencing that oppression. We wanted to explore what gender and power means to them,” said Surkin.
The show’s master of ceremonies, a role originated in 1966 by Jewish-American actor Joel Grey, is played by Suzie Assam, a woman of color. She guides the show’s songbook for most of the show, but as the story deepens, her character becomes more restrained. In one scene, she comes out from behind the curtain with her arms raised as red and blue lights flash around her.
“It’s kind of telling about the way things are today,” said Assam. “A white-passing person in that role can get by and hide from the Nazis. As someone who isn’t white, it’s not as easy to get by.”
Assam, a singer from Lewiston who performs in Portland’s music clubs, said that performing in the show has had personal significance to her.
“There are so many aspects of my life where I’m afraid to take up space,” she said. “Working with Cast Aside, I can be loud and a little weird. I can own all of that space and not feel guilty.”
Based on the script by John Kander and Fred Ebb, “Cabaret” tells about a writer who visits Berlin and meets fellow American Sally Bowles, an enchanting singer in Berlin’s fanciful Kit Kat Klub. As the two young people fall for one another in the revelry of Berlin’s night life, they’re blinded to the increasingly fascistic hold of the Kit Kat Klub’s Nazi Party owners, like frogs in boiling water.
Surkin, the show’s director, first saw a production of the play 20 years ago. He said that the cast’s research for the play included viewing documentary footage of cabarets that were held in Nazi concentration camps.
“It’s incredible to be doing this show while we’re reading news stories about migrant camps in the U.S., and hearing politicians try to spin them as functional or humane,” he said. “We researched a photo of a cabaret that took place in a Nazi transit camp — the Nazis would show the photo to people and say look how beautiful this is.”
At a little more than two hours long, the show contains nearly two dozen songs, and the script is faithful to the 1987 revival of the show. It contains visual projections, pre-recorded music and light audience interaction. Audiences are encouraged to BYOB.
A shift in perspective
With executive director and Cast Aside co-founder Celeste Green, who plays “Cabaret” lead Sally Bowles, Surkin said the company became more political after the violent Charlottesville rally in 2017.
“We were both doing this more personal work and started finding ways to be anti-racist or anti-misogynist,” said Surkin. “It’s about adding more empathy in the world. Once you start doing that work, you can’t separate your artistic work from that.”
In American politics, discussions about white supremacy and white nationalism have reached the mainstream over the last several years, spurred by the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policies and racist rhetoric at rallies and on Twitter. According to a study from the Brookings Institute, Trump has benefited politically from “anti-immigrant sentiment, racism and sexism.” A violent neo-Nazi group, reported to have “secretive cells” around the U.S., has sprung from the country’s right-wing.
While musical theater is not typically the forum of political speech, Surkin believes that the performing arts are going through a “restorative justice” period that makes it fertile ground, citing the genre’s early roots in anti-racist plays like “Show Boat” and “Carousel.”
“Musical theater is an American art form. We need to nurture it to be as subversive as straight plays have been.”
“Cabaret” by Cast Aside Productions takes place Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Portland Ballet Theater, 517 Forest Ave. in Portland, through Aug. 31; tickets are $25-35.