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Rob Weinert-KendtMay 22, 2024
Eddie Redmayne as the Emcee in ‘Cabaret’ at the Kit Kat Club at the August Wilson Theatre (photo: Marc Brenner)Eddie Redmayne as the Emcee in ‘Cabaret’ at the Kit Kat Club at the August Wilson Theatre (photo: Marc Brenner)

It was exactly a century ago, in early 1924, that Adolf Hitler was tried and convicted for treason after leading a failed coup in Berlin the previous fall. He served out a truncated nine-month sentence that same year, during which time he dictated the text of Mein Kampf to fellow inmates. In less than a decade he would wrest control of the German government via an internal coup, and within another decade would set in motion the Nazis’ most diabolical crime: the systematic mass extermination of nearly six million of Europe’s Jews.

Hitler had many accomplices in that crime, not least indifferent or hostile foreign governments. His central helpmates, though, were ordinary Germans of all ranks and classes. Their complicity and corruption is the central subject of two shows now running in New York City: “Here There Are Blueberries,” a docu-theater piece by Moisés Kaufman and Amanda Gronich about a belatedly uncovered photo album of the staff and administration of the concentration camp Auschwitz; and a new revival of the musical “Cabaret,” in which a decadent nightclub in Weimar Germany epitomizes the compromised culture that abetted and accommodated the Nazi project.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, neither show is an easy entertainment—not even the Broadway musical. First staged in 1966 and successfully revived with Alan Cumming in both 1998 and in 2015, “Cabaret” has always been a musical black sheep. With songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb, who also created the deliciously cynical “Chicago,” and a book by Joe Masteroff, “Cabaret” stages an end-of-the-world party that, in many productions, lulls and titillates us with the tale of a plucky English showgirl, Sally Bowles, and then pulls the rug out when we see where it’s all headed.

This new revival, a hit from London’s West End, doesn’t bother to charm us, unless you count the pre-show cocktail hour that has been needlessly tacked on to the evening. In the show proper, Sally is played by Gayle Rankin with a permanent sneer, and the show’s scene-setting Emcee is rendered by Eddie Redmayne as an otherworldly Pierrot puppet with a curdled old-time radio voice. The director Rebecca Frecknall stages the action in the round on a small circle in the middle of a reconfigured Broadway theater, risking sightline confusion, and Julia Cheng’s choreography is more aggressive than playful.

Somehow, though, this anxious, pitch-black view of “Cabaret” worked for me—moved me, even. If there’s any musical that can live up, or down, to such a harrowing interpretation, it is this one. Kander & Ebb’s songs have surface pleasures, certainly, but they also contain untold depths. And this is the first time I’ve seen the show in which I really cared about both of the two doomed couples at the heart of Masteroff’s book: Sally’s dalliance with a callow American writer, Cliff Bradshaw (Ato Blankson-Wood), and the tragic midlife romance of grocer Herr Schultz (Steven Skybell), who is Jewish, and Frau Schneider (Bebe Neuwirth), who is not. Other stagings of “Cabaret” may show folks blithely fiddling while their nation burns; this one has the chilling clatter of skeletons dancing on a grave. In my book, it’s transfixing either way.

Elizabeth Stahlmann in ‘Here There Are Blueberries’ at New York Theatre Workshop (photo: Matthew Murphy)
Elizabeth Stahlmann in ‘Here There Are Blueberries’ at New York Theatre Workshop (photo: Matthew Murphy)

It should be admitted that most of my critical colleagues found this “Cabaret” heavy-handed to a fault. A heavy hand on the moral scale is one problem with “Here There Are Blueberries” at New York Theatre Workshop. This meticulous forensic examination of recorded history and its lacunae tells a compelling story: how, in the early 2000s, an American counter-intelligence officer emerged with a treasure trove of photos he had saved from World War II, seeking to donate them to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. These rare images showed SS officers and employees meeting and gathering (and happily sharing bowls of blueberries) at the Auschwitz concentration camp and its surroundings. Tellingly, it shows only smiling Germans, no prisoners, let alone any telltale signs that they were all working at a horrifyingly efficient death factory.

These photographs raised all sorts of thorny questions, not least what a Holocaust museum dedicated to memorializing victims, not perpetrators, should do with them. “Blueberries” doesn’t so much dramatize these questions as simply pose them in the voices of scholars, archivists, witnesses and descendants of officers and staff who came forward when they recognized parents and grandparents in the photos. At its best, the show weaves these voices with choral precision, in tandem with artful photo projections, in a way that makes the case for this as a piece of civic theater rather than fodder for a TV documentary. Though the show’s prosecutorial tone often feels misjudged, as if it will be shocking news to anyone that ordinary Germans were complicit in Nazi atrocities, it is a worthy theatrical impulse to want us to feel that complicity. It is also instructive to consider, as lead archivist Rebecca Erbelding (Elisabeth Stahlmann) does, the fragile epistemology of history—the conundrum of, essentially, who lives, who dies, who tells your story.

Apart from its historical subject, “Here There Are Blueberries” shares at least two aspects with “Cabaret”: an opening drumroll and the pressing quandary, “What would you do?” In “Cabaret,” this is Fraulein Schneider’s anguished query for Cliff, and by extension for us. In “Blueberries,” it is the obvious, perhaps too obvious, question raised by the sight of ordinary people cavorting next to a charnel house: Where would I be in this photo if I’d been there? And what am I leaving, or pushing, outside of my viewfinder now?

Hannah Arendt’s famous observation about the banality of evil is by now itself a banality. Still, as Jonathan Glazer’s devastatingly bleak film “The Zone of Interest” (which shares some characters and settings with “Blueberries”) recently demonstrated, this is a morally serious genre—i.e., works that consider great historical crimes not as trauma narratives valorizing victims but as accountings of the everyday brutalities that contribute to great wrongs. As one woman, a former Hitler Youth leader, is quoted in “Blueberries” to say: “Our great and terrible mistake was made up of countless small mistakes.”

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