Martin: Contemporary Cabaret

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A recent performance in Burlington got commentator Mike Martin
thinking about how the Cabaret art form still speaks to us

(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.

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. 

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.

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

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.

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.

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. 

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


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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