By Nicoletta Feldman
Once theatergoers stepped foot inside the Robert L. Annis Playhouse on Oct. 26, they were no longer in Princeton.
They were in Nazi Germany.
The Westminster Players’ production of “Cabaret” transported audiences back to Berlin at the turn of the 1920s into the 1930s, as Hitler was beginning his rise to power.
“Cabaret” follows the story of young American novelist Cliff Bradshaw, played by sophomore theory and composition major Charlie Ibsen, who travels to Germany in search of inspiration for his latest work. While at the Kit Kat Klub, he meets young, English performer Sally Bowles, played by sophomore musical theater major Mackenzie Germain.
From there, their stories unfold.
Shortly after they meet, Sally Bowles finds herself in need of a place to stay and moves in with Cliff Bradshaw and they waste no time falling in love. The trials and triumphs of their relationship are one of the several ways the show tackles topics much heavier than what happens inside the nightclub where Sally Bowles works.
“It is a very intense show that is very aware of itself in many ways, including its humor and its tragedy,” Ibsen said. “It explores and discusses uncountable difficult topics while being set in a very difficult time, and it’s haunting how much we can learn from it today.”
Germain names homosexuality, abortion and Nazism as examples of the subjects that are touched upon by Cliff Bradshaw, Sally Bowles and their counterparts.
As the show moves forward, the more overtly-Nazi beliefs of most of the characters are revealed. The budding romance between boarding house owner Fräuline Schneider, played by sophomore music education major Caroline Voyack, and fruit vendor Herr Schultz, played by junior music education major Sean Reilly, comes to an abrupt end when Fräuline Schneider discovers that her fiance is Jewish.
Ernst Ludwig, played by sophomore voice performance major Gabe Woods, is one of the first people Cliff Bradshaw comes into contact with in Berlin. Ernst Ludwig offers work to his new American acquaintance, the purpose of which, unbeknownst to both Cliff Bradshaw and the audience at the time, serves Ernst Ludwig’s Nazi agenda.
For the majority of the show, Ernst Ludwig is portrayed as a normal German man — it isn’t until later in the show that his disguised ideologies are revealed to the audience and the other characters.
The perceived normalcy of such hatred was something that Woods said he wanted to emphasize through his performance.
“I strongly feel that we must recognize that evil doesn’t show up with devil horns and a cape,” he said. “It shows up as our friends and neighbors or even in our own hearts and best intentions. It’s insidious, not obvious.”
The Emcee of the Kit Kat Klub, played by sophomore music education major Devon Barnes, was described as “omniscient” by Germain and often helped drive the story forward with the insight that he provided about the events happening around him.
His personality is flamboyant and charismatic and, his actions, which consist of things like impromptu splits and dressing in drag, are often sources of comedic relief for the audience. But in “Cabaret,” not even such a light-hearted character finds himself free of allegiance to the Nazi party.
“Cabaret” did not shy away from confronting such issues head-on, and that was no simple task for the cast and crew.
However, according to Germain, it was a necessary one.
“With topics so sensitive, we wanted to try and make sure we were not offending our audiences while still maintaining that clear, yet unfortunate message of our history,” she said. “This show was written so historically accurate that it may seem to be praising our history, yet it is only meant to bring light to the fact that Nazi Germany was a horrible time that we need to reflect on in order to make sure we never let anything like it happen again.”
Ibsen echoed such thoughts, adding that, albeit terribly unfortunate, “Cabaret” still has the potential to make a profound impact in today’s world.
“The terrorism in Pittsburgh that occurred the morning of closing night is proof enough that, as challenging as it might be to put on a Nazi Germany-based show, it is incredibly necessary in today’s times to look back and wonder how far we’ve actually come — and how to move forward,” he said.
Germain said that the cast and crew “made sure this show was done appropriately and sensitively” due to its subject matter, “all while still maintaining and serving its purpose, which was to entertain, inform and make people reflect on the matters at hand.”
Despite the heavy nature of the show as a whole, not every individual moment carried such profound weight. Ibsen and Germain often gave audiences someone to root for, as their characters were good-natured and devoid of any anti-semitic beliefs.
“My favorite thing about Cliff [Bradshaw] is how much he wants the best for everyone he knows,” Ibsen said. “That seems to be his defining characteristic throughout the show, impacting how he deals with Sally’s pregnancy, Ernst [Ludwig]’s increasing connection to Nazism and the fallout between [Herr] Schultz and [Fräuline] Schneider.”
As for Sally Bowles, Germain describes her as someone who “lives to excite, entertain and shock those around her” and who “never apologizes for who she is.”
“She is fierce, spunky and way ahead of her time,” Germain said. “But we also see moments when she is sweet, loving and scared, which makes her such an amazing, contrasting and interesting character.”
Love is a terrain that was previously unexplored for Sally Bowles, and her relationship with Cliff Bradshaw adds another dimension to her already multi-faceted character.
“She has never loved before, and has never been loved, so, when she finally falls for Cliff and vice versa, there is a more tender element that is added to her,” Germain said. “It’s absolutely beautiful and so human.”
“Cabaret” portrayed a wide array of people, places and situations that embody the good, bad and ugly of the world as it was many years ago and, perhaps, still is today.
“This show is controversial for sure, but definitely not intended to praise Nazi Germany in any way,” Germain said. “We had to figure out how to pull everything off in a way that was sensitive to the topics, yet still had just the right amount of authenticity to make the audience slightly uncomfortable, but not offended.”
However, what Germain hoped that the audience took away from the performance is much more personal.
“At the end of the show, the Emcee asks, ‘So, where are your troubles now? Forgotten? I told you so.’ And that is exactly what I hope we did for our audiences — took away their troubles by reminding them that they are not the only ones struggling with something; they are not alone,” she said. “I truly love what I do, and I love this show and I hope our audiences left with a whole new take on the world around them.”
Published in the 10/31/18 edition.