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Open: 11/19/08- Close: 12/21/08 Oh, Those Beautiful Weimar Girls
Reviewed for By: Lauren Wissot

Oh, Those Beautiful Weimar Girls” is The New Stage Theatre Company’s attempt at crossing Fosse with Genet (plus a sprinkling of Grand Guignol) to explore the life of Anita Berber – “Weimar Berlin’s Priestess of Depravity,” according to her biographer Mel Gordon (who decades ago taught my freshman year, theater history class at NYU, and whose “The Seven Addictions and Five Professions of Anita Berber” inspired artistic director Ildiko Nemeth to direct and co-write, along with Mark Altman, the play). But as its title suggests the true star of the show isn’t Sarah Lemp, who plays Berber, but the campy, vaudevillian chorus girls who perfectly execute the down-and-dirty, dynamic choreography of conceptual artist Julie Atlas Muz (Miss Exotic World and Miss Coney Island ’06) like a lusty, peep show version of The Rockettes.

In fact, the dance numbers and Javier Bone Carbone’s thrillingly inventive costumes, making the performers resemble gothic rejects from “The Wizard of Oz,” only serve to highlight the decadent heights this production could have reached. For while the cast is having a blast dancing as fast as they can during the musical numbers, the predictable directing and exposition-heavy script weigh on “Weimar Girls” like a cocaine binge comedown. Which inevitably leads to those scenes of depravity emerging from out of nowhere. Yes, there’s simulated masturbation and drug-taking, and real nudity and food flying – none of which is organic. The push and pull between the addictive enthusiasm of the actors and the drag of conventional staging makes the entire play feel as herky-jerky as the chorus girls’ dance moves. Who wants to indulge in outrageous hedonism after a dry, psychoanalytic monologue? (Why can’t psychoanalysis be visceral, too?)

And herein lies the major problem with ”Weimar Girls” – its decadent diva less a force to be reckoned with than a character straight out of Chekhov; the acting is just too realistic – too Stanislavski. If any production calls for the hyper-real, stylized, Sarah Bernhardt school this one is it. Nemeth may be a veteran of the experimental theater world, but her cast is using the wrong method, the wrong tools, for the job. The press notes go to great lengths to remind that Anita Berber was painted by Otto Dix and acted for Fritz Lang, inspired the likes of Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl – even served as the subject of Rosa von Praunheim’s 1987 film “Anita – Dances of Vice.” In other words, this was a woman as larger-than-life as Expressionism itself. It could be that the subject is just too big for this small company, that perhaps only a crazed genius like Martin McDonagh could do her outsized nature theatrical justice. (The Priestess of Depravity definitely could use a German “Pillow Man” treatment.)

For Berber lived her life caught between the one-two punch of WWI and Nazism. And we need to actually “feel” this context of Weimar Berlin in order to fully understand her; it’s not enough to hear her story through words. The sound effects of planes roaring overhead at the start are wonderful – but not followed up. The music (especially the Weimar-inspired Klaus Nomi tunes) works but it pales in comparison to a live score. And the audience, seated around the stage from a safe distance away, needs to be physically, dangerously closer to the action – as enveloped as the Weimar cabaret audience would have been. (Why not set up tables and chairs on and alongside the stage, letting the audience be part of the production?)

In fact, only after Berber’s death is playwriting’s “show don’t tell” rule adhered to, in a powerful metaphor made visual, of those smiling chorus girls dancing as fast as they can as the lights dim and solemn chamber music plays. The panic and frenzy – the “dancing on thin ice” – becomes physical as Hitler rises to power, as the Weimar Girls’ joie de vivre consumes them. This scene is so crushingly painful it renders the final moments of the beautiful dancing skeletons (chorus girls clad in bodysuits with glow-in-the-dark bones painted on) moot. “You’re repulsive,” Berber tells her collaborator/lover Sebastian Droste midway through the play. To which he exclaims, “But I have the best drugs!” If the Weimar icon tried to teach the world anything, it was that the lust for life and death are one and the same.

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