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Martin: Contemporary Cabaret

06/22/11 5:55PM
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(HOST) A recent performance in Burlington got commentator Mike Martin thinking about how the Cabaret art form still speaks to us today.

(MARTIN)  I like art that's fun... but that makes you think too.

Burlington's annual Spielpalast Cabaret is a case in point.  Inspired in part by the Weimar Republic's Three Penny Opera, the cabaret gets its name from the German spiel, meaning play, and palast, for palace.  It's a raucous burlesque show that mixes satire with hot jazz and saucy dance routines. 

The Spielpalast is terrifically entertaining, but it's dead serious about its social and political satire. In recent years, the cabaret has tackled important issues such as gender identity, religious fundamentalism, classism, health care, and even genetically modified food. Like the Three Penny Opera and the Dadaists before them, the Spielpalast players use slapstick, absurdity, and gallows humor to attack bigotry and injustice.

"I'm not happy with the show unless it makes me a little uncomfortable," Co-Producer and Art Director Jessie Owens explains. Perhaps this is the secret to the Spielpalast Cabaret's success: by using a 30's art form - and plenty of bawdy humor - its creators are able to get large audiences to think about important social issues that might otherwise get swept under the rug. 

The Spielpalast got its start 10 years ago when Lois Trembley and Terry McCants, both dancers and choreographers, staged a benefit show for a friend with breast cancer. It was in a vintage clothing store in Burlington and the program ranged from Debussy to poetry readings. Now the Spielpalast performs sold-out shows around Vermont and will even perform in Scotland this year.

The Spielpalast Cabaret has its roots in vaudeville, but its musical palette is much broader, including Tin Pan Alley, opera, drinking songs, Kurt Weill, and Duke Ellington. The choreography ranges from Irish step-dancing to tango, from classical ballet to West African dance.

And unlike community theater troupes that work from an established script and libretto, the Spielpalast choreographers, writers, and musicians feed off each other's ideas to create totally new material every year. Music Director Randal Pierce says it's the "perfect venue for exploration" and that there's "lots of room to push the envelope, to try different things." Owens explains that the cabaret players think about nothing else during months of rehearsals, and that their bohemian labor of love is only possible thanks to an outpouring of support by the local community every year.

Even though the costumes tend to be risqué, the Spielpalast questions body-image assumptions and celebrates the sexiness of women who come in all shapes and sizes. Fans know better than to expect a chorus line of identical Barbies. To the contrary, the Spielpalast rejects the objectification of women's bodies and upends society's dictates on how women are meant to look... and behave.

The original Three Penny Opera was an explosion of artistic creativity that came while Europe was reeling from World War I and sliding into the Great Depression. Its subversive message championed the working class and ridiculed unscrupulous bankers. 

Given the current state of things, it's easy to see why that message still resonates with cabaret audiences today.


 The Spielpalast Cabaret will be performing Thursday, July 14 at the Vergennes Opera House, Friday, July 15 at the Big Picture Theater, Waitsfield, and Saturday, July 16 at the Barre Opera House.


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