The seedy Berlin of Kander and Ebb's Cabaret is so familiar to us that to encounter the sedate world of John Van Druten's I Am a Camera is something of a shock. Instead of the Kit Kat Club, we get Christopher Isherwood's tiny apartment; in place of goose-stepping Nazis, we get Isherwood's pupils parading in and out of his rooming house; and rather than witnessing a singing, strutting Sally Bowles, we meet Sally while she's off-stage, idly lounging around with Christopher and their friend, Clive.
Well, perhaps it's true that Sally Bowles is never not performing. This self-invented expatriate "nightclub artiste" who fuels the better known of Isherwood's The Berlin Stories (the collection of his two novels that formed the inspiration for Cabaret) is busy being "a strange and extraordinary person," whether she's onstage or not. It's her full-time job. Part of the bohemian menagerie with which Isherwood hangs out, Sally is both a product of the artistic creativity that thrived in Weimar Germany and a symbol of the self-absorbed attitudes and amorality that aided Hitler's rise to power. With her green fingernails and jet-black Louise Brooks bob, Sally, like Berlin, is just beginning to show signs of rot. Like most of the expatriates the real-life Isherwood encountered while writing his novels, Sally probably will be gone before the war gets going.
At the New Theatre, which is staging the first South Florida production of I Am a Camera in recent memory, Sally is played by Tanya Bravo, who has found her way to the character through Liza Minnelli. Hardly anyone remembers that the demure Julie Harris originated the role in 1951, but no one can forget Minnelli's jack-o'-lantern eyelashes and bowler hat or her brash interpretation of Sally in the 1972 film. Jill Haworth played Sally in Harold Prince's 1966 Broadway version, and Natasha Richardson and Jennifer Jason Leigh each played her in the recent revival, but Minnelli so deeply put her imprint on the role that few can imagine Sally any differently. Least of all Bravo, who, under the direction of Rafael de Acha, has built a character around Minnelli's mannerisms, to the detriment of the production as a whole. Rather than allowing us to see a new side of Isherwood in this quieter version of the story, the New Theatre production begs to be compared with the musical and comes up wanting.
I Am a Camera
New Theatre, 65 Almeria Ave, Coral Gables; 305-443-5909. Through December 19.
Written by John Van Druten, based on Christopher Isherwood's The Berlin Stories. Directed by Rafael de Acha. With Heath Kelts, Kimberly Daniel, Tanya Bravo, Thomas Mikusz, Stephanie Martin, Joe Knezevich, and Lisa Morgan.
That's too bad, because the nerve center of I Am a Camera is not Sally but the Christopher Isherwood character, who speaks directly to the audience, explaining his frustration at trying to capture the haunting mood of 1930s Berlin from the point of view of an outside observer. He finally settles on an objective stance. "I am a camera," he says, "with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking." Heath Kelts plays Isherwood as a dyspeptic hypochondriac, a man whose latent homosexuality is so far under wraps that no one can detect it. Not even the sexually experienced Sally, who encourages Isherwood to cuddle with her in bed while discouraging him from falling in love with her. Kelts, a talented actor, is the freshest element of this production, but even he can't get us to see exactly what is at stake for these characters who find themselves, as the saying goes, living in interesting times.
In Isherwood's novels (The Berlin Stories comprises Mr. Norris Changes Trains, from 1935, and Goodbye to Berlin, from 1939), the city and its inhabitants reveal themselves to be amoral, corrupt, and passively accepting of the Nazi horrors starting up around them. Isherwood's sitting room is a way station through which we glimpse the snapshot images that he wanted to record. Isherwood gives English lessons to Germans, but the door is open to many. Among the visitors is the rich homosexual Clive, of whom both Isherwood and Sally are enamored. He promises to take Isherwood and Sally on a trip around the world, thereby setting up a bisexual ménage à trois, not to mention a route for the two to escape the growing madness of Hitler's Berlin. Later Sally's mother shows up to "rescue" her, not realizing that, in a sense, Sally has already rescued herself by having an abortion.
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The secondary characters that tramp through Isherwood's room provide a lens to the outside world as well. Isherwood's landlady, Fraulein Schneider (Kimberly Daniel), slowly begins to parrot the anti-Semitic talk of Hitler's propagandists she hears on the street. Isherwood's pupil, Natalia Landauer, a member of a rich Jewish merchant family, is one of the first to personally experience the dark side of Nazism when Hitler cracks down on Jewish businesses. Fritz, another pupil, shows us a different side of the German tragedy, when he falls in love with Natalia but nearly loses her because he's afraid to admit to her that he, too, is Jewish.
By placing this particular group of people in the same orbit, Isherwood means to suggest a world in which politics, history, morality, and sexuality collide in new and dangerous ways. The thrill of such a mixture of personalities and agendas is precisely what's missing from the New Theatre production, which, while often thoughtful, is inert and earthbound. No sooner has Bravo's Sally made her breathy entrance, than the characters seem to be going through their motions and little more. Although it's technically polished, there are no surprises in Bravo's performance, and there's not much momentum in de Acha's direction either. I'm a huge fan of the director, but I'm not sure what it is he wants to underscore in this story, which I suspect won't hold too many thrills for the person who hasn't seen Cabaret, either.
Veteran Kimberly Daniel brings a sinister subtlety to the racism in her character; however, in the performance I saw, the other supporting actors weren't strong enough to suggest the very real threat of storm troopers, book burnings, and other Nazi effects looming just outside the door. (Michael McKeever's cluttered set features a cut-away wall through which we actually can see a representation of a city street but that view, devoid of nastiness, is the closest glimpse we get.) Some of these smaller performances may find their mark as the production continues: Thomas Mikusz's Fritz and Stephanie Martin's Natalia are both likable, and Joe Knezevich's Clive is well intentioned if too broad. Lisa Morgan, who plays Sally's prune-faced bourgeois mother, gives a performance in the few short minutes that she's onstage that's so complex I wish she were starring in her own play. She's got more subtext in her wrinkled-up nose than this production has from head to foot.