‘Oh, Those Beautiful Weimar Girls’ Returns to La MaMa E.T.C., Cabaret-Style

chorus of Oh, Those Beautiful Weimar Girls. Photo by Zita Bradley.

To celebrate one of the most successful shows of its fall season, Manhattan’s La MaMa Experimental Theater will re-mount The New Stage Theatre Company production of “Oh, Those Beautiful Weimar Girls” from January 29 to February 7, 2010. The piece is an evening of the music and dance associated with Anita Berber, the iconic actor/dancer/poet who epitomized for many the decadence of Weimar era Berlin. It is conceived and directed by Ildiko Nemeth. Texts are written by Mark Altman. Choreography is by Julie Atlas Muz and Peter Schmitz.

The piece was initially presented by New Stage Theatre Company in November, 2009 at Clemente Soto Velez, to favorable reviews. When La MaMa presented the piece December 4 to 13, 2009 in its second floor Club space, director Ildiko Nemeth trimmed her creation to adapt it for a late-night time slot and accentuated its cabaret elements. The cabaret seating and intimate atmosphere of The Club at La MaMa brought an immediacy and electricity to the work and audiences responded. Throughout the two-week run, crowds were enthusiastic and The Club at La MaMa was filled to capacity

The piece is unique in that it affords New York audiences a glimpse at Weimar-style Cabaret at a high level of production, which is rarely seen nowadays. The La MaMa staff is excited to present archetypal cabaret in the space of the La MaMa complex that was built for it.

Weimar cabaret goers pursued glamour and pleasure compulsively, as though excess might grant liberation from the perils of their time. Weimar show girls became iconic symbols of this escapism, representing both protest and surrender. Novelist Jerry Stahl described their effect in his introduction to “The Hot Girls of Weimar Berlin” by Barbara Stahl, writing, “Even as Death, smiling like a sadistic Domina, lowers her high-heeled boot on your face, you can smile, and grind, and know that, for one tragic and ecstatic moment, release is yours. And you can forget about the obliteration to come. The Girls of Weimar Berlin could make anybody forget.”

Sarah Lemp as Anita Berber in Oh, Those Beautiful Weimar Girls. Photo by Jonathan Slaff

Anita Berber, Weimar’s best-known showgirl, performed in the nightclubs and casinos, naked except for a sable wrap and a pet monkey hanging from her neck. Her body was thin and androgynous; her bright red hair was cut in a rebellious bob and a silver brooch filled with cocaine usually hung around her neck. A pioneer of modern expressive dance, using the music of Debussy, Strauss, Delibes, and Saint-Saens, she was at first taken seriously, but eventually her artistry was overshadowed by her scandalous personal and professional lifestyle, as performances grew increasingly macabre. She was diagnosed with tuberculosis while touring in Lebanon in 1928, and died shortly afterward, at age 29. With original and classical music, dance and striking stage design, “Oh, Those Beautiful Weimar Girls” recreates some of Anita Berber’s cabaret-styled performances, including much of her “repertoire of the damned.”

The La MaMa production of “Oh, Those Beautiful Weimar Girls” will be a cabaret distillation of a musical theater work which New Stage Theater Company presented in November, 2008 at Clemente Soto Velez. That production was inspired when Ildiko Nemeth, Artistic Director of New Stage Theater, read “The Seven Addictions and Five Professions of Anita Berber” by Mel Gordon. Nemeth was struck by parallels between the Weimar period and our own and found the figure of Berber particularly affecting. Nemeth explains, “Some may argue that inhabitants of every age feel themselves at a precipice. Whatever we feel about the singularity of our own time, Weimar was unique. Its prevailing desperation and euphoria make it a symbol of every human life, finite and urgent.”

Reviewing last year’s production, Time Out (Adam Feldman) wrote, “Ildiko Nemeth’s stylishly morbid dance-theater piece is nostalgic for a time when sleaze was decked out in corsets and feathered masks. It is a world of arty death-dances and morphine hazes, of repressed baronesses and their nubile, sexually curious daughters. And in the middle of this costume orgy drifts Anita Berber (Sarah Lemp), the real-life scandal queen of 1920s Berlin, numb from years of shocking. The show is at its most effective when it gives itself over to the spirit of risque fun.”

Chris Tanner as the Master of Ceremonies in Oh, Those Beautiful Weimar Girls. Photo by Zita Bradley.

Richmond Shepard, writing in Lively Arts, praised “Oh, Those Beautiful Weimar Girls” as a “powerfully engaging evening” with “the sexiest choreography in town by Julie Atlas Muz and Peter Schmitz.” Lauren Wissot, writing in TheaterOnline.com, praised its “thrillingly inventive costumes” by Javier Bone-Carbone and its “dark, sparkling set” by Jason Strum. Lisa Ferber, writing in nytheatre.com, called it “one terrific show” and a “well produced, highly watchable night of indulgence.”

Larry Litt observed in the New York Theatre Wire, “We’ve all heard New York and San Francisco’s diversely perverse art worlds compared to Weimar period Berlin. If it’s true, there’s a subtle message for artists and audiences in Ildiko Nemeth’s production. We must be aware that we live in a world of contrasts and extremes on all sides. If you happen to engage in outrage as an art form, keep it small and be very ready to escape. If it’s not true and we’re far more tolerant than Germans were in between World Wars than you missed the point of the times we live in. Politics and extremist art do not mix well. Anita Berber’s life, art and times are proof art is always a target for other extremes, namely the anti-art, fascist, religious right. As in Anita’s life we must never let them stop us from making our version of art. Even at the cost of our lives.

In 2007, New Stage Theatre Company, under the direction of Ildiko Nemeth, presented the American premiere of “The Round of Pleasure” by Austrian playwright Werner Schwab, “the divisive mastermind of contemporary Austrian Drama.” The 1986 play, a modernist re-telling of Schnitzler’s “La Ronde,” was staged with striking visual beauty and received enthusiastic notices. Columnist Glenn Loney (NY Theatre Wire) called for “elegantly-devised production” to be seen at the Salzburg Festival. The production was nominated in three categories for the 2008 Innovative Theater Awards.

Markus Hirnigel as the Little Corporal who stalks the show. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

In 2006, New Stage Theatre Company presented “Some Historic/Some Hysteric,” a play set in late 19th Century Paris. It was based on the “Tuesday lectures” of Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot, the founder of modern neurology, who invited the public to Salpetriere hospital to watch patients enact their neurological maladies. Time Out (Robert Simonson) deemed the production a “surreal vision” that was most effective in its images. Backstage (Irene Backalenick) called the play “an awesome aesthetic experience. Magnificent work, all around, courtesy of its set design, costumes, movement, music, performance and direction.” “Some Historic/Some Hysteric” was subsequently nominated in 2007 for Innovative Theatre Awards in three categories: Outstanding Production of a Performance Art Piece, Outstanding Actress in a Featured Role and Outstanding Ensemble.

Director Ildiko Nemeth is a Hungarian native and a veteran of Eastern European experimental theater. Her desire to bring this form of theatrical expression into stronger focus for American audiences led her to form The New Stage Theatre Company in 2002. In Hungary, Nemeth garnered numerous prizes for acting, such as the Guardian Critics’ Choice Award at the Scotland Fringe Festival in Edinburgh and the Best Performance Award at the International Gombrowicz Festival in Poland. She moved to the U.S. in 1998 and founded NSTC after graduating with a Master’s Degree from the Actors Studio Drama School in 2002. At the Actors Studio, several of Nemeth’s peers were inspired by her unique vision of bridging geographical and cultural gaps by collaborating with international artists. This group became the original NSTC. Since then, the group of New Stage collaborators has included numerous talents, including a Guggenheim fellowship recipient and artists trained at the Julliard School.

The performers are Chris Tanner, Kaylin Lee Clinton, Sarah Lemp, Catherine Correa, Markus Hirnigel, Denice Kondik, Jeanne Lauren Smith, Fabiyan Pemble-Belkin, Florencia Minniti, Lisa Kathryn Hokans, Christine Ryndak and Madeline James and John Rosania. Lighting design is by Federico Restrepo. Costume design is by Javier Bone Carbone. Original Music is by Jon Gilbert Leavitt (Outmusic Award Nominee).

La MaMa E.T.C. is located at 74A East Fourth Street in Manhattan, between Second Avenue and Bowery. Performances are January 29 to February 7, 2010; the schedule is Fridays and Saturdays at 10:00 pm and Sundays at 8:00 pm. Tickets are $20 general admission and $15 students & senior citizens. The box office phone number is (212) 475-7710. To buy tickets online, visit www.lamama.org.