“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking,” wrote author Christopher Isherwood on the first page of his novel Goodbye to Berlin, on which the musical Cabaret was based.
The world it recorded was bleak and chaotic. It’s this world that the University of Nevada, Reno’s Department of Theatre and Dance and Department of Music aim to capture in their upcoming production of Cabaret.
As explained by director Yassi Jahanmir, assistant professor of theater history, literature and theory, this production is far from the slickly produced, iconic Fosse film version of 1972. Rather, this version is closer to Isherwood’s original semi-autobiographical work—a gritty, unabashed look at the politics of hate.
Amid the backdrop of Berlin during the Nazis’ rise to power, Cabaret tells the story of Isherwood’s alter ego, Clifford Bradshaw (played by Nick Farro), a bisexual American expat who has arrived in Berlin to savor its hedonistic Jazz Age way of life. He happens upon the seedy Kit Kat Klub, where his neighbor, notorious flirt Sally Bowles (Jasmine Johnson), performs. While the two embark on a doomed romance, all around them is chaos, as the Nazis slowly intrude on their freedoms.
Considering the constraints of a personnel-strapped school-theater program, Jahanmir opted for a DIY-style production that’s raw, unfiltered—and literally dark.
“Both the art and the politics were very brazen in this era, so we really wanted to capture that sort of brazenness with this do-it-yourself vibe,” she said. “We also have no technical director at UNR, so we’re doing all of our own lights, and we’ve been very creative with the different ways that we use lighting.”
The result is a black-box theater that feels as if it might be a bombed-out, prewar wreck of a building in the 1930s. Floor lights create a stark, seamy atmosphere, giving faces a harsh appearance and casting eerie shadows on the walls and ceiling. Sets incorporate recycled cast-offs, evoking an atmosphere of deprivation. The audience is frequently plunged into darkness, with off-kilter lighting mirroring the unsettling nature of the show’s themes.
The intimacy of the theater leaves room for little else—including a band. Musical director Aren Long says Jahanmir’s vision meant taking songs originally meant for a full jazz band and orchestra, and reducing them to music played by himself and Alex Breckenridge—on piano, violin and percussion—with occasional accompaniment by actors on clarinet, ukelele or brass instruments. The show’s most beloved tunes (such as “Money,” “Wilkommen” and “Maybe This Time”) will still be recognizable … but different.
“I’d kind of equate it to a cover version, with different instrumentations and some surprises here and there,” Long said.
Nate Hodges, a longtime dancer and teaching associate professor of dance, is the show’s choreographer. Hodges says that the technical challenges really became opportunities.
“The portable lighting creates a stronger sense of mood and that gritty, stark quality of the cabaret. I started thinking about ways to incorporate portable lights into the dances,” he said. “In ‘Money,’ for example, the dancers hold tap lights that turn on and off. We have Christmas lights that Lucas (Moir, who plays the Emcee) wraps himself in for another number. And we’ll have candles in some others. So it’s about being intentional with the lighting so that it becomes part of the universe we’re trying to create.”
Hodges’ innovative choreography is also decidedly un-Fosse-like, merging ’20s and ’30s-era jazz dance with more-contemporary movement.
“Our club is much grittier, much less stylized and more rooted in the darkness of what was coming,” he said.
The confines of the set mean that, at times, actors might feel too close for comfort, enhancing the disturbing nature of the setting and capturing the feeling of being encroached upon. Guests at cabaret tables should expect to have the occasional actor touch a shoulder or step into their personal space, lending it an immersive quality.
In fact, intimacy has become a focal point of the show—so much so that Adi Cabral, an associate professor of voice and movement, is providing intimacy coaching to ensure actors’ comfort and feelings of safety onstage, as well as helping with dialect coaching and fight choreography.
Johnson, a recent graduate of the UNR theater program and an experienced singer, is excited to sink her teeth into the role of Sally Bowles. She appreciates the way Jahanmir has leaned into the story’s darker elements.
“I don’t want to just do theater for entertainment’s sake,” she said. “I find that boring. I love to have something to bite into, that makes you feel something, whether it’s weird or disturbed or sad. So it was exciting to come into this creative team, with this vision.”
Moir, a sophomore and longtime dancer, is also embracing a multitude of styles in his role as the Emcee. “I learned all my lines monotone, so I could come into the rehearsal space and just practice different inflections and see what worked best,” he said. “… Yassi and Nate and Aren have given me so much freedom to be able to play.”
Moir emphasizes that not only will every performance will be unique, which adds to its appeal, but that it’s a story everyone should hear.
“It’s so important, and so applicable to today and the problems we still face,” he said. “It’s just a really beautiful, powerful story.”
Cabaret, a production of the UNR School of the Arts, will be performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2:30 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, March 5, at the Redfield Studio Theatre in the Church Fine Arts building. Tickets are $18, with discounts. For tickets or more information, visit www.unr.edu/theatre-dance.