THIS: Inside Out
January 25, 2016
A reflection on the expanded version of Jenny Lee Mitchell and collaborators’ Weimar-cabaret reinvention, performed at Dixon Place, NYC, on January 13, 2016.
History was not made to repeat itself but it is meant to be remembered. Each time “Mad Jenny” performs, the past is a bit different. The cabaret edition of her revue Love und Greed drew the audience in and took it down a cavern into the places where the last century’s social outliers did not plot, but tried to survive away from the eyes of the gathering dark cloud of fascism. Moving from that presentation’s literally underground club to the spacious black-box auditorium of alternative performance space Dixon Place, the show is more like a ghost cinema of some joyous gathering in a refuge that once stood where we are now sitting — the Lower East Side of New York, a slate of civilization perennially wiped as clean as capitalist juggernauts can, and site of many ethnic exoduses in and out, is a fitting habitat for Jenny’s invocation of precarious cultural golden-ages.
The more the past changes, of course, the more the present stays the same; as master of ceremonies, Jenny’s patter phases from references to the real-life venue and its contemporary neighborhood, to the troubled 1930s/’40s turmoil the characters are trapped in. The sarcasm and defiant good humor suit either era, and bringing together far-flung times and cultural camps is in the essence of Jenny’s sly insurgency.
The same song will be sung in English and then German (or the other way ’round); each reading is accompanied by a different pantomime, acknowledging what gets lost in translation but can fit each side’s missing pieces together.
One of the showstoppers is Jenny’s live-spliced red-dress/tuxedo outfit, in which she enacts wrestling-match-of-the-sexes tableaux in a remarkable contorted body language. The very merging of the two personae disclaims the dividing-line itself, and a diffuse gender spectrum is a central part of the palette from which Weimer and modern culture alike draw their endless possibility and connection. (In this iteration of the show, several guest performers underscored that diversity, especially burlesque icon Pandora incarnating the pioneer sex-role transgressor Anita Berber.)
In much more lighthearted form, Jenny, her crack sidemen Ric Becker (trombone) and Marty Isenberg (bass) and her brilliant arranger/accordionist/pianist Maria Dessena repurpose, or de-purpose, popular songs in humorous ways; amidst the interwar-era political and sexual satires we hear visionary retro-dancefloor versions of the Eurythmics’ “Love Is a Stranger” and Rihanna’s “Diamonds” (both of which I’d heard before), and, new to me, Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” a disco song adapted into a Charleston-worthy fling that works just as well (a dance craze is a dance craze I guess, meant to disappear and be immortal).
Some difference can’t be surmounted though. Jenny again performs a breathtaking, heartbreaking song written from within the Terezin concentration camp by captive Ilse Weber, and the pristine agony of this sober work contrasts sharply with the jollity of the other songs — they are pointedly unnerving too, since they are a rebellious cry of joy against a towering shadow, but Jenny perceives the difference in tone between those whistling past the graveyard, and those within.
The theatre space, not unlike a bunker, with permanent seating set up like a rally, is possessed by the performers transportingly and staged by Patrice Miller transcendentally — its balcony becomes a bridge for a suicide in a Brecht/Eisler song to jump off of (just implied); the waiting guest performers are visible at the sidelines like some backstage Degas parallel plane; the flat square space is activated in a connect-the-dots of motion; and a suggested parlor chair and table stand unfilled, the specter of fine, familiar culture that didn’t make it back to the world.
On occasion, in each show, Jenny announces advances and atrocities by Hitler that happened on that day (she doesn’t have to make anything up). Her sincerity is magnified by the feeling of breaking news that reaches us generations too late. But Jenny and her cohort’s time is here, and everyone in range should make the most of it.