As a fan of burlesque, cabaret, Cabaret, and Weimar-era Germany, I was thrilled to get an email inviting me to review Halbwelt Kultur at the New Wimbledon Studios. I hadn’t heard of PK Productions before, but I’d sure heard of Marlene Dietrich, Bertolt Brecht, and Rosa Luxemburg.
The production was set up as a series of vignettes featuring seven different women of this era, with the cast each having a star piece while also providing support in each of the other women’s pieces. As a group, they were fairly varied in hair color, faces, and body types, but dressed in matching knicker/camisole set with garter-look stockings; when they came out to do their star turns they had special clothes (such as kimonos, evening gowns, coats, day dresses) that helped them efficiently take on their new personas. Then they performed a bunch of songs from the Weimar book (Spoliansky’s “I Am a Vamp,” Friedrich Hollander’s “Falling In Love Again,” Brecht’s “Supply and Demand”) with, I think, some new songs dropped in – I could be wrong as they did seem period appropriate but the program didn’t let me know, but they were delightfully accompanied by a three piece band that included a tiny little trumpet. And each vignette allowed the performer to talk about where the star they portrayed belonged in the cabaret constellation – although I didn’t feel like some of them were really in that galaxy at all, but rather in the larger society and pulled in to the show more because of their gender rather than their place in the “underworld.”
My favorite piece of the night was Claire Waldoff (Gabriella Schmidt), who did a crazy “dress tease” in which she saucily put on the clothes of a man while the various cabaret dancer girls flirted with her (updoing her zipper, playing with her tie, et cetera). It was full of sexual tension and laughter and was utterly charming and quite yummy. It then took the opportunity to switch into a more meaty view of the reality of her life, showing her relationship with her girlfriend Olga (Stephanie Hampton, I believe) and both the joys and then the dangers as life as a lesbian as the Weimar era was overtaken by the Nazi regime. It was both entertaining and extremely humane, though it didn’t give us any clues as to how things really resolved for them.
As a piece, the evening felt a bit tacked together, as some of the non-performers featured didn’t really seem to fit in as members of the Halbvelt even though they were clearly on the edges of acceptable society; the numbers for Gabriele Tergit and Rosa Luxemburg just didn’t fit and seemed to be a case of filling out the show more than creating an artistic unity. And some of the numbers seemed very soft … Marlene Dietrich (Sarah Bradnum) just didn’t have much to say and came off a bit cartoony. I was far more interested to see the bizarre dancing and performance art that came with Valeska Gert and Anita Berber’s bits, which really pulled me into the era rather than just giving me a history lesson.
As this evening was a workshop production, I’d say it was a success – 40% of the show might be cut or reimagined, but there’s more than enough there for a good evening’s entertainment and it was a success as it stood – at least if you judged by the opening night house, which was quite sold out (as was most of the rest of the run). I’d say that between the actual performance style and the story that Halbwelt Kultur was tryign to tell, there is an even better show waiting to come out – and I’ll probably be back to see it again.
(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, April 17th, 2013. It continues through April 20th.)