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Larry Litt

Oh, Those Beautiful Weimar Girls!

Sarah Lemp as Anita Berber; Javier Bone Carbone as Sebastian Droste. Behind: Peter B. Schmitz as Master of Ceremonies.

Conceived and Directed by Ildiko Nemeth
Written by Mark Altman
A New Stage Theatre Company production
At Clemente Soto Velez, 107 Suffolk St. NYC
November 19-December 21, Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 5 p.m. (except December 21, at 3 p.m.); no performances Thanksgiving week; $25, $20 students and seniors
Tickets: (212) 868-4444, www.smarttix.com or www.newstagetheatre.org

Reviewed Nov. 21, 2008 by Larry Litt

Everyone in the arts should know Anita Berber. She’s the Icon of Desire in Berlin’s Weimar period, where sensuality and depravity reigned. With her slim, elegant dancer’s body she provoked seduction in every pose, arousing perverse sexual images through her dances and lack of costumes.

How did her times influence Anita as an artist? Her world spanned between devastation of the First World War and what would be the unthinkable horrors of Nazism and the Second World War. Was she an artistic prophetess of impending doom, intuitively sensing the conservatism, repression and heights of destruction to come? I think so.

Chorus of "Oh, Those Beautiful Weimar Girls!"

As Ildiko Nemeth, director of "Oh, Those Weimar Girls!" presents Anita and her circle of dancers, there is an impending orgasm of creativity along with reactionary doom. The beautiful and energetically choreographed (by Julie Atlas Muz and Peter Schmitz) platinum blonde bewigged, nearly bare breasted chorus line dancers (Lisa Kathryn Hokans, Madeleine James, Florencia Minniti, Kat Ross, Christine Ann Ryndak) set the wild and glittering tone for this tale of Weimar Berlin’s new arts ecstasy and its eventual tragedy. They represent comfort and ease with Germany’s then New Sexuality, a burning for hedonism without pain or regret.

While she can Anita Berber, erotically and heroically played by mystically faced Sarah Lemp, lives the bohemian life with artistic success, media and audience acclaim. It was a time of experimentation and acceptance by an elite clientele with exotic tastes for depravity, though in a uniquely German flaunting style. Most European arts were in turmoil after Word War One, that German attempt at interrupting the rise of democracies. Germany loses, is devastated, traditional German Gothic art and styles are deemed perverse, played against by many so-called degenerate artists including Anita Berber.

Peter B. Schmitz as Master of Ceremonies.

Ms. Nemeth presents Anita’s legendary life in a stark, open, modern cabaret club setting designed by Jason Strum, thematically lit by Frederico Restrepo. The cabaret itself is ominously emceed by Peter B. Schmitz, costumed in period glitter mini drag. Schmitz’ M.C. overcomes his own shock of the lurid times with a very straight presenting style, a realized irony compared to the sex and depravity on stage. His essence reminds us there is a violent history here, with more dangerous change yet to come.

Javier Bone-Carbone’s costumes set the period tone and eroticism. They are the setting element that tells us we’re in a world unlike the previous German arts world of high opera, ballet and grand balls. Something new and different is happening, and it’s not to everyone’s liking. When a raving fascist declares Anita’s art “Enemy of the People” the costumes are the contrast that makes that exaggeration believable. His costumes for the sex crazed yet regal Baroness are a study in stage contrasts. He also plays Anita’s male companion, dancer and drug dealer, Droste, like the sub rosa, underworld art figure he was in reality. Yes, again, these are real artists played by artists. Where is this going?

The Teutonic ranting of the ‘Little Corporal,’ demonically and perfectly acted in high accusatory tones by Markus Hirnigel, is a hint of the future that all European artists should have noticed was out to destroy them. Adding youthful energy and authenticity are Rosanna Graf and Johannes Ernest Nowak as confused German youth. John Rosania’s ‘Naïve Journalist’ merely reports, without analysis, Anita’s deeply perverse, bored and ever needier sexual and drug desires.

Kaylin Lee as the fur and silk bedecked ‘Chanteuse’ who breaks our hearts.

However it’s the fur and silk bedecked ‘Chanteuse’ character played by singer/actress Kaylin Lee Clinton who breaks our hearts with her renditions of Kurt Weill’s ‘Tango Habanera’ and ‘Die Lorelei’ by Heinrich Heine. She’s the conscience of Weimar Berlin, at once both life and death, contemporary and traditional, chauvinistically German and newly emancipated cosmopolitan. Ms Clinton’s powerful and ascending character changes form a focused contrast to Anita’s ever diminishing light and beauty.

Playwright Mark Altman’s script cuts straight to the heart of the Weimar period. He gives voice to the angst, experimentation and successes of artists living through unknown times. Where is Germany going now that it is defeated and Germans are angry at their post war punishment? Where will artists and art end up now that everything is permitted and cannot be denied? What forces lurk in the background of any cultural shift? Are sex and drugs the only personal transgressions that artists can use to satisfy themselves? Altman attempts to answer these eternal questions while keeping the politics topical and vibrant.

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.

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