Drag “Cabaret” in Seattle: To Russia, With Love

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A representation of the Cabaret concept. Photo provided by Mickey Rowe.
A representation of the concept for an anti-Putin Cabaret. Photo and model furnished by artistic director Mickey Rowe.

On Aug. 10, a piece appeared on the Huffington Post by Seattle-based filmmaker Wes Hurley (born Vasili Naumenko), whose documentary Waxie Moon has been screened worldwide, and whose last feature, the “queer, pop-art comedy-musical” Fallen Jewel enjoys an unprecedented kind of cult status in the Pacific Northwest city, with frequent screenings drawing audiences from far and wide.

Currently, Hurley is making a film that is, he says, a directly autobiographical look at growing up gay in the former Soviet Union. Appropriately, his HuffPo post (republished from the Seattle Gay News) was called “Growing Up Gay in Russia” and in it he left little doubt as to where Russian society stands on human rights, let alone the civil rights of its LGBT citizens.

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Yet, “Growing Up Gay in Russia” seemed to startle American eyes: How many stateside LGBT activists gave much thought to the enduring Russian penchant for homophobia before the state-sanctioned antigay crusade of Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this summer, transforming worldwide reaction to it into an out-of-nowhere cause celebre? With the Winter Olympics in Sochi looming, Hurley’s confessional sported superb timing, for in it he does not indict Putin, per se, so much as the entirety of the Russian people:

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Backed by the Russian Orthodox Church, the oppressive monarchy condoned and enforced slavery and violent oppression of minorities. This monarchy was replaced with Communism, which was a different form of slavery. Everyone who had the courage to speak out against injustice was systematically murdered or sent to gulags to die. And now, under the guise of democracy and the free market, the same old KGB goons are running the country as one large organized crime network, without any pretense of morality or justice. It’s hard to speak up about homophobia in such a place. Bigots in Russia don’t have to explain themselves. Violence against gay people is not frowned upon, because violence is the way of life…

Gay rights in the West did not come out of a vacuum. They exist in the larger context of humanist movements, centuries of people striving for a fairer society, whether it was ending segregation or working toward gender equality. Russia doesn’t have an equivalent of these movements. Russia’s minorities, including Jews, are as despised now as they were during the reign of the Tzars. Feminism, which is such an important precursor for gay rights, is foreign to most in the former Soviet Union. Women don’t see themselves as equal and rarely question whether that’s a good thing. An average Russian woman works her ass off and then comes home expected to do every house chore possible while her husband reads the newspaper and drinks. March 8, International Women’s Day, which is very popular in Russia, has been appropriated by the sexist culture to mean nothing more than celebrating how pretty women are and giving them flowers. Domestic violence is the norm. Misogyny is as Russian as vodka. And without the assumption that women and men are equal, the concept of gay rights doesn’t stand a chance.

Hurley’s post also galvanized the Seattle theatre community — including one Mickey Rowe, producing artistic director of Arts of the Waterfront, a two-year-old company whose revivals of Waiting for Godot and Romeo and Juliet were tied in part to fundraising for such charities as Teen Feed and The Trevor Project. Rowe told The Clyde Fitch Report that Hurley has agreed to play the Emcee in a revival of the musical Cabaret, which has scheduled a run for November and December at the Cornish Playhouse (formerly the Intiman Theatre, 201 Mercer St., Seattle). As one might expect, Rowe has reset Cabaret in Russia.

This Cabaret, Rowe added, will feature an all-male cast “combining theatre, drag, and short clips of actual vigilantes and neo-Nazis” in Russia in order to comment, agitprop-style, on recent events there. The production will also feature Zachary Simonson, late of Seattle Rep’s American Buffalo, and “members of the Seattle drag community,” with the audience scattered among cafe tables and couches. For tickets, click here.

And now, 5 questions Mickey Rowe has never been asked:

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
I would have to honestly say that your fourth and fifth questions are up there on the list. With your fourth question probably being the top of that list. Another question I really liked is, “Why do you do what you do?”

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
I don’t think that anyone asks stupid questions; we have to remember that not everyone is as lucky as we are to do what we do for a living, so expecting someone to ask a really interesting question about theatre is like asking me to ask a really interesting question about accounting. It might not necessarily happen, but that’s perfectly okay. That’s why theatre is for everyone.

3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
Your sixth question also wins that prize for that, as well as the prize of my favorite question I’ve ever been asked.

4) Harold Prince’s original production of Cabaret ushered in the era of the “concept musical,” with its alchemy of agitprop and metatheatrics. For your revival, how much agitprop is just enough while being faithful to the material?
The whole point of the show is to draw connections between the beginning stages of the Holocaust in 1930s Germany and the current situation in Russia, with Putin’s antigay laws and the killing and torture of gay youth by the Russian neo-Nazis. But, to tell this story well, we need to completely seduce the audience in the first half of the play into thinking that this Cabaret is the most fabulous place they have ever seen, so we plan on striking a careful balance between modern Russian imagery and the musical’s German roots.

So many actual lines used by emcees in Berlin in the 1930s fit so nicely into our retelling. A great line from Werner Fink, who was emcee of Die Katakombe in Berlin, which we have incorporated into our show, is: “Yesterday we were closed, today we are open, if we are too open tomorrow we’ll be closed again the next day.” In our Cabaret, it’s said by our Emcee while he tears down the rainbow flag which, up until then, had been hanging with the Russian flag proudly across the room from it.

Another example of great pieces actually used by the emcees of 1930s Berlin is a song that we have given to Fr√§ulein Schneider to the tune of Carmen‘s “Habanera.” The lyrics, by Friedrich Hollaender, a Jewish emcee of the time, originally went:

If it’s raining or if it’s hailing,
If there’s lightning, if it’s wet,
If it’s dark or if there’s thunder
If you freeze or if you sweat,
If it’s warm or if it’s cloudy,
If it thaws, if there’s a breeze,
If it drizzles, if it sizzles,
If you cough or if you sneeze:
It’s all the fault of all those Jews.
The Jews are all at fault for that.

But we have:

If it’s raining or if it’s hailing,
If there’s lightning, if it’s wet,
If it’s dark or if there’s thunder
If you freeze or if you sweat,
It’s all the fault of all those gays
The gays are all at fault for that
You ask me why the gays at fault
You just don’t get it, dear, they are at fault…
You disagree, then you’re at fault,
The gays are all at fault for that.

When the audience first hears the tune they go, “Oh, isn’t it funny?” or “Isn’t it sweet that they’re using the tune of that song we know?,” and then you hear the lyrics. So the song tricks you into not knowing whether to laugh and applaud or not.

Mickey Rowe
Mickey Rowe

5) So you have the alternative universe of the Kit Kat Club in Cabaret on the one hand and the self-delusion of real Russian officials who claim, say, that Tchaikovsky wasn’t gay, on the other. How do you manifest on stage the difference between the fictional Cabaret and the factual horror show unfolding in modern antigay Russia?
That is a great question. We plan on blending the two worlds together. Both worlds will start out very magical, full of fun and camp with magic yet simple transitions, surprise entrances and fanciful costume reveals. Both worlds start out in the extraordinary because we really feel it’s important to create an undeniable appeal that makes the audience want to stay in the world we’ve created; we can then juxtapose that with a slight change in the second act. The change being: over the course of the play, both worlds become very bleak and much like a Russian winter, with military inspirations and fetishes from the world outside of the Cabaret permeating to within.

It’s really a fairly traditional production of Cabaret because the musical tells the story of Russia’s relationship to the LGBT community so well.

An example of simple magic: we are making a train using a freestanding ladder. The ladder is manipulated to become the piston of the steam train. The puppeteer manipulating the front half of the piston puffs on a cigarette blowing the smoke into the air as a train whistle sounds.

If the world of the fanciful alternative universe of the cabaret represents the history of the musical and 1930s Germany, the reason we plan on blending it with the factual, modern-day, anti-gay Russia is to illuminate how quickly one situation can transform into the other.

Bonus question:

6) How fierce are Seattle drag queens?
Seattle drag queens are so fierce that Beyoncé herself has to avert her eyes when one walks by.