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How do you prep your 20-member cast for your revival of Cabaret? If it’s 2006, and you’re the boss of Washington’s biggest theater company, you do it with a 250-page briefing book and an hourlong seminar on post-9/11 freedoms.
In Arena Stage’s season-opening musical, Artistic Director Molly Smith has set out to limn parallels between a traumatized Weimar Germany tipping perilously toward fascism and our own terrorized republic as it wrestles with the limits of freedom.
“Cabaret is a cautionary tale,” Smith says during a break from rehearsal two weeks before press night. “It’s a dark musical for dark times, and there are dark times right now in America.”
In addition to hours of music rehearsal and scene work, Smith’s cast has found itself confronted with some serious assigned reading. The inch-thick “Arena Companion to Cabaret”—compiled by the company’s dramaturges and handed out to every actor—explores topics from transvestite bars in ’20s Berlin to Lawrence Britt’s widely blogged-about “14 Defining Characteristics of Fascism.” (No. 7: “Obsession With National Security.”) Also included: the Bill of Rights—annotated, for those willing to plow through the paperwork, with all-too-recent examples of violations and abridgments.
And the seminar? Irving Spitzberg—immigration attorney, education-policy expert, member of the Bar of the Supreme Court of the United States, and dad of one of Arena Stage’s fundraisers—parachuted in during the rehearsal process to lead a conversation about how rights evaporate when nations tremble.
Not that anyone’s crazy paranoid over at Arena. “America’s not the Weimar Republic,” Smith acknowledges. “It’s not there at all.” Still, her staging is in the business of asking about compromises, about “where those changes are occurring and where we need to be awake.”
As a result, rehearsals have involved improvisations firmly rooted in the show’s ’30s milieu but informed by events like the still-unfolding warrantless-wiretapping furor. The finished staging will make nods, large and small, to phenomena as diverse as racial profiling and intrusive law enforcement, liquids in luggage and listeners on phones. And the queers, in this version of the Kit Kat Klub, occupy a Germany every bit as divided as the America that’s home to both Massachusetts and Alabama.
“You’ll see pieces [of scenes] that have to do with gay marriage….pieces that have to do with gay rights,” Smith says. “Something happened in this country two or three years ago that moved a lot of people into believing that, Aha, this is something that could truly happen.” They thought the same, Smith says, in Weimar Germany—right up until the Night of the Long Knives.
It’s comforting, of course, that Smith still has the freedom to stage her cautionary Cabaret a mile or so from the Capitol. Still, audiences at Arena may want to take into account one of Spitzberg’s observations in that early-rehearsal seminar.
“They weren’t afraid enough,” the lawyer said—and by “they” he meant the characters who keep returning to the Kit Kat Klub, hoping their government’s most frightening tendencies are just momentary, necessary evils. Politicians of every stripe, in every era, have been known to use fear to stampede the body politic, Spitzberg told the actors. “You’ve got to be afraid enough to focus on what’s important.” —Trey Graham