Heroine Chic

The short, spectacular life of Anita Berber epitomized and inspired those of her Weimar Republic generation (and beyond), including such influential artists as Marlene Dietrich, Leni Riefenstahl, and German expressionist painter Otto Dix. Author Mel Gordon dubbed Berber “Weimar Berlin’s High Priestess of Depravity” in his 2006 biography, upon which Oh, Those Beautiful Weimar Girls, an original play with music and dance, is based. Conceived and directed by the founder and artistic director of New Stage Theatre Company, Hungarian native Ildiko Nemeth, and written by Mark Altman, the piece recreates the milieu over which the iconic Berber—silent film actress, dancer, poet, playwright, and sometime drug-addicted prostitute—ruled before her early death (of tuberculosis) at the age of 29. As a performance piece, Oh, Those Beautiful Weimar Girls, is equally spectacular, lavishly choreographed by Julia Atlas Muz and Peter Schmitz (who also stars as the Master of Ceremonies), with gorgeous bejeweled costumes designed by Javier Boné-Carboné, who also plays Berber’s co-combatant husband and co-star Sebastian Droste. The shimmering Metropolis-inspired set designed by Jason Sturm is moodily lit by Federico Restrepo. Grounding all of this is an evocative musical score with original compositions by Jon Gilbert Leavitt (also referencing Metropolis and other period stylings), plus music selected by Nemeth including everything from Beethoven to Kurt Weill, to the warblings of the distinctively original German countertenor (and 1970s émigré to NYC’s East Village), Klaus Nomi.

However, since it is billed as a “play,” I found the teensy bits of fractured story in or between performance numbers to be largely unsatisfying. With Berber arguably being one of the first postmodern performance artists ever seen, particularly in female form, here she remains enigmatic, and it seems that an opportunity to fill in more of the blanks about her turbulent personal life and unique artistic perspective is sadly missed. We only see Berber (and other characters) as performers, not as people, and while Sarah Lemp vividly brings her brash, provocative stage persona to life, she doesn’t seem to have been given enough material to create her character in full relief. If an impressionistic visual and aural tribute is the primary intention, then it succeeds, but playwright Altman is quoted as saying the play aims to “capture [Berber’s] indomitable spirit and inspire young and old alike to rage against the night.” But this only seems possible had her essence been more thoroughly explored, which may have proved that much more fascinating and/or inciting.

Also shamefully underused is Kaylin Lee Clinton as the Chanteuse. Clinton’s voice is lilting and lovely, and her all-too brief spotlight moments are transcendent. The timbre of her voice alone can speak volumes, suggesting that if the piece had been organized as a true musical (which it seems to have ample material for), then perhaps more of the emotion and drama inherent somewhere in these vignettes could have come through.

The chorus of Weimar Girls, played by Lisa Kathryn Hokans, Florencia Minniti, Madeleine James, Kat Ross, Christine Ann Ryndak, is a marvel to watch, guided by Schmitz’s ubiquitous MC, serving as they do (in lieu of a narrative) as the ostensible “engine” of the piece. Their make-up, wigs, masks (also created by lighting designer Restrepo), even their lightening-quick costume changes, all were impeccable. Their movements are at times playful, sensual, animalistic, and finally robotic as the era begins to devolve, and they embody the dubious celebration (objectification) of female entertainers in post-WWI Germany. More exploitative than erotic, most of the cabaret lifestyle is still fun to watch, although less so as it grows into the morbid, seemingly desperation-fueled orgy it ultimately became.

It may have been a contact high, but I sensed a subtext of a bizarro-world Alice-in-Wonderland (call it “Anita in Wunderland”) with the MC cast as “Mad Hatter,” Berber as the “Queen of Hearts” (complete with an “Off with her head!” scene), and the baroness’ corruptible daughter, played with believable innocence by Jeanne Lauren Smith, as the virginal “Alice.” The bisexual, S&M relationship among Denice Kondik’s kinky Baroness, her young daughter, and Berber, might lead us down the rabbit hole, so to speak, but again it seems to operate solely as a symbol, without seeking further exploration. Also inexplicable are Berber’s interactions with the Naïve Journalist, played by John Rosania, whose presence seems ready-made to inject some commentary, and yet he mostly just sits around, as voyeuristically as we feel.

I believed it had been Berber’s challenge of what was “acceptable” in her world-weary society that actually inspired her followers, not just the acts in themselves, which seem to be the primary focus here. We see that the chorus girls begin to appear maniacal with frozen smiles and locked in step, and yes, Berber’s so high that she can barely stand upright, and finally, as she takes a turn for bloodlust, whether real or imagined, I felt like, “ok, ok, we get it.” Even in an earlier scene where the MC is alternatively gorging on and vomiting quail eggs, one starts to wonder, is there any other statement to be made? Without any context of what the performers/observers may have thought or felt, the glorification feels like unenlightened sheer spectacle. The odd effect of this being that by the time the Nazis start to loom, we feel a sense of great relief, surely not the creative intention? Yes, Berber truly lived through her art, and her light burned (and crashed) brightly, but what lies beneath those iconic images, many of which, after all, do survive? With this we are only left to ponder, and hopefully to seek out more.

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