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Adapted by Nathan Weinberger and Paata Tsikurishvili from the novel by Mary Shelley

Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili

Produced by Synetic Theater

At the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater to Oct. 1

A leggy black chorine pops her head through a curtain at the outset of Arena Stage’s Cabaret, and whoa-llkommen may well be your first thought. Hasn’t the opening salvo of this explosive musical always been an emcee in whiteface? Joel Grey with cheeks rouged, Alan Cumming with glitter on his nipples—that’s how it’s done, no?

Then again, what better way to signal a reconsideration than with a photo negative of that image? Monique L. Midgette does not turn out to be the evening’s mistress of ceremonies—a sneering Brad Oscar handles those duties, his emcee as pale and pasty as usual—but the spotlighting of an actress of color as this show about intolerance gets under way is no accident. Elsewhere in the cast you’ll spy Asian and Hispanic faces—calculatedly nontraditional casting that willkommens audiences to a ’30s Berlin that looks a lot like America today.

If that casting connection doesn’t register, others will: passengers frisked and told to remove their shoes as they enter a country made nervous by political violence; a prisoner photographed as his captors beat and humiliate him Abu Ghraib–style. Molly Smith’s staging uses such images sparingly but insistently, encouraging audiences to see parallels between right-drifting societies then and now, in which governments curtail civil liberties, erode legal protections, and engage in religion-based fear-mongering.

These are points, of course, that can be made without quite so much pointing. Still, you can’t blame a director for wanting to reinvent a piece of theater as thoroughly identified with its film version as Cabaret. Almost all of Smith’s choices seem designed to create distance from our memories of earlier mountings. The color palette runs not to stark blacks and reds but to the rusts and browns more familiar from regional productions of ’30s plays. The performers look different—Meg Gillentine’s Sally Bowles is a bleached blonde, while Glenn Seven Allen’s Clifford Bradshaw is less reminiscent of Michael York than of Conan O’Brien. Or they sound different: Dorothy Stanley and Walter Charles, playing Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz (figures virtually eliminated in the film but essential to the stage story), don’t croak their songs in the style of originators Lotte Lenya and Jack Gilford but sing them full-voiced.

Smith and her designers have also rethought the central bit of artifice that lets the show exist simultaneously on- and offstage. Where most mountings lower curtains to create the Kit Kat Klub’s stage, Anne Patterson’s multilevel, trapdoored setting conflates the Klub itself with the rooming house where Sally finds shelter with Cliff—so seamlessly that she can slink out of bed and be singing atop a piano with little more than a shift of her hips.

The director also quotes moments from earlier Arena productions. The model train that chugs across the stage announcing Cliff’s arrival, for instance, can’t help prompting memories of a similar device Zelda Fichandler used to chilling effect back in 1991—in Born Guilty, Ari Roth’s wrenching look at the children of Nazis.

In short, this is a Cabaret that uses theatrical history to illuminate a theatrical take on history. And for the most part, the strategy works. Gillentine’s hard-edged Sally may not raise goose flesh when she sings the title number, but goose-stepping Nazis (deftly suggested by David Neumann’s choreography) is no less chilling for that. Oscar makes a ghoulish yet haunted emcee, at once threatening and threatened, and significantly more conflicted than emcees usually are allowed to be.

The subsidiary cast is never less than professional, and in a few instances—Sherri L. Edelen’s ever-practical prostitute, J. Fred Shiffman’s oily Nazi—they’re considerably more than that. The moment when the two of them use the song “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” to whip up a flurry of Nazi salutes while Herr Schultz dances in drunken oblivion, imagining a Jewish wedding that will never take place, comes off as breathtakingly double-edged.

Yet while that moment, like much of Arena’s production, feels powerful, the evening in toto is something less than an emotional powerhouse. Accomplished, smart, and entertaining, the production isn’t terribly moving. It is intriguing though, on quite a few levels, perhaps because so many of Smith’s social observations are encapsulated in the margins of the script, or in the subtle transformations she works between scenes rather than in the words librettist Joe Masteroff has provided, or in those iconic songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb.

An evening-long segue, for instance, from feminine cheer (with men in drag filling out the Kit Kat Girls’ chorus line) to masculine oppression (with those same men re-attired in Nazi drag), makes a gender-specific point about sexual differences and differing propensities for tolerance and violence. It’s a fresh observation, and a telling one, drawn from a script you’d think had been explored in just about every way imaginable.

Just a few months ago, Synetic Theater used a 16th-century text to create a vividly 21st-century Faust, all punked-out and pulchritudinous. That terrific production, with its flying bathtubmobile and club-hopping metalheads, seemed to signal a new direction for a troupe that had previously excelled mostly in 19th-century imagery. But in Frankenstein they’re up to their old tricks again, and sadly, all the oomph seems to have gone out of them.

The evening opens arrestingly enough at the Terrace Theater, with crabbed figures climbing ice floes behind a curtain of spiderwebbed cables while others emerge downstage from an arctic mist. The image—creepily evoking the rocking of a boat in choppy seas—is compromised somewhat by bobbing Styrofoam “icebergs” so small they might as easily be headstones in a graveyard. Dr. Frankenstein (Dan Istrate) soon arrives, talking of science labs and the making of a monster. Alas, things then get seriously silly.

Mary Shelley’s tale of a creature who sought love in human society but found only fear seems a natural fit for Synetic’s brand of muscular, movement-based storytelling, but director Paata Tsikurishvili can’t seem to get a grip on it in production. He ties himself in knots with exposition, spending forever just getting the good doctor out of his family manse and off to school. There’s a farewell dance that ought to consume about 20 seconds of stage time but instead goes on for long minutes. A science class in which fluids are combined to produce bubbles and smoke—but not much by way of plot or entertainment value—takes just as long. And by the time Dr. Frankenstein trundles out a wheel-of-fortune contraption (one that doesn’t even produce sparks when he cranks it to make electricity), you’ll suspect the director is just engaging in story-padding.

Even the dancelike movement that makes Synetic’s work so distinctive isn’t used as adeptly as usual. Irakli Kavsadze is reasonably expressive as the Creature, and he’s lumbering and powerful enough to throw Istrate and the play’s other humans around as if they were puppets. But both leads are hampered by a flatfooted script and by staging that mostly feels as if the director is reworking mimetic tropes that have served him well elsewhere. It’s hard to breathe life into a story this familiar anyway. But it’s not remotely possible when set pieces that the audience justifiably expects to sizzle—the lightning bolt that fires up the Creature, say—just fizzle.CP