Aug 12, 2011

REVIEW: Der Gelbe Stern | The Reginald, Sydney

Seymour's intimate downstairs theatre, recently rebranded The Reginald, turns out to be an ideal stage for cabaret. (Well, cabaret within a play, I suppose, for the protagonist doesn't

Seymour’s intimate downstairs theatre, recently rebranded The Reginald, turns out to be an ideal stage for cabaret. (Well, cabaret within a play, I suppose, for the protagonist doesn’t play herself, but someone she could easily have been.) At least in the format designated for Alex Fishman’s Der Gelbe Stern (The Yellow Star), which includes a small, round platform for the singer, with band behind; tables and bentwood chairs in the foreground, behind which is the familiar tiered seating. The sound was exemplary and basement vibe spot-on. But with material like this you can hardly fail. The musicians were on the money, with their bonus strong suit in feigning Teutonic dispositions earning them bonus points.

Fishman’s performance is impeccably timed and measured: she never risks over-dramatisation. Indeed, the second triumph of this production is in her decision to understate. It makes her character’s fate all the more tragic. Many a director and actor could learn from her, in this regard. The first triumph is also a product of understatement. Too many cabarets are over-written, in a desperate attempt to curry favour, win hearts or sympathy. And, too often, it backfires, because the script is transparently disingenuous. Fishman (and James Millar, her co-writer) builds the narrative, as well as the aesthetic and mood, mainly through the most rigorous, thoughtful and interesting selection of songs to which, perhaps, I’ve ever been privy. You won’t find many of the ‘usual suspects’ here. And, of course, sensitive direction by Tanya Goldberg also, almost certainly, has a lot to do with the calibration of Fishman’s delivery.

Fishman (just as my Holcaust-surviving family members, one presumes, must’ve done), as Erika Stern, finds dark and mischievous humour even amidst surrounding and impending doom. The Weimar republic is about to be plagued by the final solution. People are disappeared daily. With a certain resignation to her fate, the fictional, yet credible, Stern bites back, with satire and a feisty defiance. And it’s her last chance to do so, as tonight is her last, since the club’s owner has been gently persuaded to cut any and all ties with Jews.

Thanks to Fishman’s background and immense talent, we’re easily and uncomfortably transported to Nazi Germany and it’s none too hard, if grotesquely unpalatable, to imagine someone just like Fishman being ostracised, and worse, if born in the wrong time and place. Some of the most heartrending moments, ironically, come unbidden, such as during the rousing mockery of English comedian Ronald Frankau’s Heil Hitler, Ja, Ja, Ja!, during which you don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

In short, Goldberg, Millar and, above all, Fishman, have come up with a cabaret that’s both personal and poignant, yet speaks for a vast number of people. Few cabarets, if any, achieve that. Through the vehicle of a character about as true to life as they come,speaks from the heart and the soul, rather than being just another contrived, constructed ‘me, me me!’ tale.

The details: Der Gelbe Stern is at The Reginald until August 13. Tickets on the venue website.

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