November 1, 2015
Ghost stories aren’t scary when ghosts are all you have left. After sieges and genocides and epidemics we long to be surrounded by the life that could have been. So seeing Mad Jenny and the Society Band in a concert room slightly underground at the back of a bar in the Lower East Side was like descending into heaven.
Jenny Lee Mitchell is a performance-incarnator who takes on the persona of a Weimar-era German cabaret singer, getting in one last encore for humanity before the shadow of fascism rings down. Her repertoire is drawn mostly from the artists exiled by the regime and those who could not escape soon enough — the community of political progressives and feminists and gender/sexuality pioneers whom the most terrorizing of societies itself feared.
With platinum hair that could be carved for a statue at the ’36 Olympics, Jenny assumes a kind of conformist drag to burlesque the perfection of Nazi ideals, while embodying the rich bazaar of transgressive culture that Germany raises up between imperialist episodes — duetting with herself in a split-screen male-female ensemble, wading through the audience as a benighted bourgeoisie, moving with satirical precision in parallelogram couture that made me less sorry I never saw Klaus Nomi. She leafs through a newspaper rearranged like a collaged Schwitters parody on one side and proclaiming an advance by Hitler on the other; it’s as if the artistry of the time has all collected on this spot and bent reality back into the right shape, until you turn the page.
The reception for referents from across the continuum of forgotten vanguards is high-fidelity; this is where you’ll see a pantomimed Clara Rockmore joke with a misshapen clothes-hanger during a dour pro-abortion number.
Jenny’s voice is operatic and acrid as needed, an astonishingly concentrated yet explorative style. The Society Band is note-imperfect with their precision mischief, especially the clever, by-turns wistful and withering arrangements and keyboards of Maria Dessena. She and Jenny clash melodically on an exhilarating Eurythmics cover and a buoyantly heartbreaking Rihanna one, just to bring the lineage of outsider pop and tragic divas up to the minute.
We teeter on another historical turning point when difference is under siege but gaining ground, and this ensemble is a spirit of both the past and the future warning us. The set closes with several songs from the artists’ concentration camp, Terezin, drawn from both its uproarious and heartbreaking repertoires.
The night I saw this, a Terezin survivor was in the audience, hanging out afterwards to sing us some bits of the cabaret she herself sang in the camps, telling of the Dietrich covers she would re-create as a kid for bread thrown over the wall and how she became friends later with the Blue Angel herself, relating stories of children ransomed by the Nazis before they were simply murdered, telling us each who our celebrity lookalike was (like my late mom did too, an old-Jewish-lady superpower I guess), heaping praise on (non-Jewish) Jenny and joking hilariously and looking decades younger than her 91 years. Some ghosts, mercifully, can wait.