Divine Decadence and Dollars

Cabaret in the Mather House Dining Hall tonight through Sunday at 8:15 p.m.

JOEL GREY'S DIABOLICAL LEER, Liza Minelli's divinely decadent green nail polish and nervous mannerisms and the way her magnificent, ringing voice transfigured both in the lurid glare of the Kit Kat Klub--these are images that linger long and powerfully from the film version of Cabaret. From the growing horror of Nazism in Weimar Germany, the film cut artfully to the dazzling, perverse world of the cabaret, which grotesquely parodied an even more grotesque reality. The effect was to present a society in which decent human relationships were impossible, where human contacts were uniformly debased to the level of the Emcee's obscene sexual antics.

Any production of the original play Cabaret must labor in the shadow of the movie, even though play and film are structurally distinct. The subplots are completely different, the main plot varies in significant details, and, most important, the film version transplanted virtually all the music to the cabaret sequences, heightening the contrast between the escapism of the Kit Kat Klub and the painful drama outside. If the play suffers from the blurring of these two worlds, however, it benefits from the mere fact that it is theater--that we, the audience, are immediately present as the audience of the Kit Kat Klub and as participants in the decadence it purveys.

Brazenly evoking this decadence, the Mather House production also succeeds in the more difficult task of depicting the frailty of human bonds in the face of Nazi inhumanity. Lavish and exuberant, this production aims high, and thanks to a strong cast which surmounts some sloppy staging and technical blunders, its grasp almost equals its reach.

The ghosts of the characterizations created by Grey and Minelli loom over Mather's Cabaret, and Don Martocchio and Katie Spillars have evolved different strategies for dealing with them. Martocchio plunges into the part of the Emcee much as Grey did--leering, bawdy gestures, demonic glee and all--but his supple body and fine voice invest his performance with a flair of its own.

With Martocchio setting the tone, the cabaret scenes are always suitably grotesque, sometimes stunningly so. Among the show's best numbers are "Two Ladies," an athletic celebration of a menage a trois complete with tumbling and the obligatory obscene gestures, and "Sitting Pretty (The Money Song)," featuring elaborate sequined, rhinestoned and feathered costumes and the talents of "Mary" (America) Lou Fackler as a red, white and blue drum-assed American dollar.

Spillars, on the other hand, plays Sally Bowles and not Liza Minelli, giving a performance far less mannered and extreme than her film counterpart. Spillars' interpretation works best during her parting with her American lover, when she allows flippancy to imperfectly shield deep pain. Unfortunately, in her musical numbers, Spillars is more intent on mimicking Minelli, and the contrast between original and imitation is hardly flattering.

The role of Spillars' lover Clifford Bradshaw (Jerry Bisantz) is a difficult one--Bradshaw must appear a naive, brash American without becoming just another obnoxious tourist. While Bisantz has a pure, clear voice, his acting relies too heavily on certain set poses--gazing innocently at his interlocutors, for instance, and then shaking his head and repeating their remarks to himself with unconvincing amazement.

As a result, the burden of emotion in this production falls to the supporting duo of Fraulein Schneider (Deborah Jean Templin) and Herr Schultz (Peter Lerangis), a middle-aged boardinghouse keeper and a Jewish fruit dealer whose marriage plans are disrupted by Nazi threats. Luckily, Templin and Lerangis bear the burden with ease.

Templin's Fraulein Schneider understands above all the necessity of enduring; a fine dramatic singer, Templin infuses her rendition of "What Would You Do?" with a dignity that partially redeems Schneider's seemingly heartless emphasis on survival at the cost of love. Lerangis achieves just the right balance between humor and pathos in his portrayal of the rejected fruit dealer, displaying a superb tenor voice as he tells the story of the "Meeskite" who lives happily ever after and ponders the advantages of the wedded estate in "Married."

On a technical level, Christopher Harding's direction is sloppy at times--poor blocking occasionally obscures the central characters, and last Friday technical hitches abounded. That particular night, no less than two suitcases, a mirror, two bottles and a fruit bowl all fell, and the transitions between scenes were often slow and clumsy.

Nevertheless, the show reflects considerable technical expertise. The ubiquitous Joe Mobilia has designed four sets for this production (impressive for a House show, even if the bedroom set is furnished with a Harvard bureau) and Pam Compton and Phyllis Zinicola's costumes are unusually opulent.

The Mather Drama Society not only poured profuse energy (and cash) into this production, but also found the talent to complement it. Best then to take the advice of the show's title song, and come at least to this particular Cabaret.