During the Middle Ages “morality plays” would come to local villages. With simple tales of good versus evil, they would show villagers the true way to a life of peace and goodness — sometimes in thought-provoking ways.
Sutter Street Theatre’s “Cabaret” is thought-provoking in a similar way, but here the path is murky … and the characters are trapped in a web of evil so dark that most won’t leave it.
And that is thought-provoking in and of itself.
Set in Berlin during the waning years of the Weimar Republic and the rising years of the Nazi Party (circa 1931), the play centers around the activities of a seamy night club called the “Kit Kat Club.” It is a seedy place, filled with seedy, amoral people. Sex and alcohol are the gods worshipped here. A ghoulish emcee (effectively and brilliantly portrayed by Mark Ettensohn) welcomes members of the audience to the club. From the very beginning, the audience is involved in the show.
Into this nether world stumbles failed American novelist Cliff Bradshaw (Elio Gutierrez), who quickly gets caught up with Sally Bowles (Lauren Miller), one of the club’s leading dancers.
In many ways, this play is about the death of innocence — and as members of the audience we passively witness this …“participating” by our very inaction. How does one deal with that?
“The club becomes the frame through which the audience witnesses the decline of one world and the birth of its dark successor,” said Connie Mockenhaupt in her director’s notes. “Of the many themes present in ‘Cabaret,’ perhaps the most relevant to our modern lives is a lesson about responsibility. The Nazis didn’t conquer Germany; the Germans became Nazis. The citizenry fell prey to an attractive vision and willfully ignored the destructive reality taking shape all around them — content instead to remain asleep. And this, perhaps, is why the show begins with its most telling statement: a mirror… (‘Cabaret’) teaches us that the darkness isn’t ‘over there’ somewhere — in a distant time and place … it lives in each of us, waiting for us to open the door and let it live in the world.”
As the audience descends into the darkness, it is accompanied by the Emcee. When I asked Ettensohn who he was channeling for this wild and twisted performance, he replied that the Emcee is “more of an idea. I give my wife, Lauren (Miller) the credit for that. The Emcee reflects emotions and moods in the play.”
Considering that Ettensohn has recently completed his doctorate in clinical psychology, it is chillingly appropriate that he is the thespian in charge of the Emcee’s muse. His background brings additional depth to his portrayal of the character.
At the end of the play, each member of the audience is left with the dilemma, which one of the songs of the play even addresses: What Would You Do?
It is a thought-provoking dilemma. What does one do when faced with evil? How does one face social pressure? Should one act against one’s conscience? How does this happen?
The answer is left for us to ponder.
As I left “Cabaret” I remembered the work of Professor Stanley Milgram. His ground-breaking work sought to find a cause for why the Holocaust was permitted. His research into the dynamics of social pressure astoundingly found that, when faced with social pressure, more than 60 percent of subjects will succumb to intimidation — regardless of age, social class or education.
The only subjects who resisted were those who had strong personal integrity, and who had been prepared over the course of their lives to oppose that which they knew was wrong — even if that action was unpopular.
Perhaps this is the purpose of “Cabaret.” If it causes audiences to think about the consequences of permitting evil to infiltrate our lives, then perhaps it will not do so again.
“Cabaret” runs through Oct. 16. It contains mature themes. Sutter Street Theatre is located at 717 Sutter St. in Folsom. For ticket information and times visit sutterstreettheatre.com or call (916) 353-1001.
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