Discover more from 5, 6, 7, 8
a tale of two cabarets
Fear, Fantasy, Across the Middle, and Past the East
I am writing to you from Performing Arts Forum, known as Paf from here on out. Crisp autumn sunlight is streaming through my window and Hester is having her morning nap on our shared bed behind me. Every morning, we go into the woods for about an hour and then I come back here and write while she lies exhausted in a soft warm furry heap. After lunch, we repeat. I’m also learning how to drive stick shift and am washing copious amounts of laundry. I’ll be here until early November, by which time the window will not be open at this time of day. Cars are lining up at the gas station due to, among other things, strikes at the oil refineries. We are terrified of the gas bill to come. Wool and hot water bottles are tried and tested alternatives, as is not panicking.
Right before I left Berlin, I attended a flurry of performances and it turns out that I am writing about all of them, two of which I’m going to describe now. It’s funny to sit here as the roosters crow and recall the glittery rush of hopping from venue to venue. I’d walk in from the drink before the show, wearing my houndstooth blazer and lipstick, greeting friends and colleagues rapid fire. This is how going to the theater usually feels, but when it’s a cabaret, it’s sparklier.
This may not have been true in Weimar-era Berlin, but today I feel like it’s rare to see more than one cabaret in a week. I’ve attended two drag shows in as much time, probably. But the aestheticized, evening-length, sit-at-a-little-table kind? Rare. Yet I sat at two little tables during the last week of September and watched artists explore this genre, and it was a gas.
The cabarets in question were ‘Fear and Fantasy,’ a solo by Caroline Neill Alexander, and ‘Across the Middle, Past the East’ conceived by Roni Katz and Lee Méir, in collaboration with many others (credits below). The scales of these two shows were different, but both leaned on the act format to break a concept into bite-sized pieces that, I realized, do not need to “come together” the way sections of an evening length theater show might. It really got me thinking about the beauty of the cabaret and its relevance to the revolution in thinking that we’re in the midst of.
The gift of the cabaret is that not all the pieces need to get along, or be anything like each other. Their differences and variations and the time in between each act is where the meaning-making takes place. The act is pure pleasure; it’s entertainment. You are laughing, crying, or otherwise admiring, and then you have a small break, where you can smile at your neighbor or sip from your drink.
A red carpet spills down steps and pours through center stage until the feet of the audience. Caroline @cartsnax Alexander (who will refer to herself this way throughout) emerges at the top of the stairs in a bespoke skirt suit built from a single oversized blazer. She’s holding a baton and it’s all that jazz, it’s Chicago, it’s we’re going to have a great evening. Each step down tantalizes us. The slit down the side of the skirt, held together by laces, allows me to discern that she is not wearing underwear, but the outfit isn’t even about that. It’s about the words FEAR and FANTASY printed all over it, as if she were a Formula 1 race car. Throughout the one-woman cabaret, à la Lil’ Nas X, Caroline @cartsnax Alexander will call everyone by her name, like audience members or her sound designer, Fjòla Gautadòttir. She puts herself in the center, amps the glitz, and then explodes into a million versions of herself.
She’s a California, Daisy Duke kinda gal singing Paparazzi! She’s an old English man, practically bent in two! He's asking the audience for tuppence right in the old hat! She’s a pure-bred Pomeranian, super excited to be here, who then struggles through a long tube! She’s an acrobat on a swing with a stocking on her face and it’s really beautiful! She’s the piece of shit emoji, doing ballet! She’s an audience member! Her costume changes are fast! She’s funny! She’s sexy! She is a little bit removed! She’s performing!
At one point, she pulls a volunteer on the stage, throws a blonde wig and the formula 1 jacket over him, and takes his place in the audience for a Q&A. She asks, “there are a lot of, ah segments, or sections, and it doesn’t really feel like a cohesive narrative…” He interrupts her with “Are you a cohesive person? Because it’s really about me and if you’re expecting me to be cohesive… is that fair?” Caroline replies, “huh, yeah I guess I am made up of many segments too… but then how does that relate to fear and fantasy? Like why did you choose that title and then show this?” Caroline, the bearded audience member holding the mic on stage, pauses and then says “I feel most people are afraid of their fantasies. My fantasies are scary. But there are also fantasies that are projected onto me, by the world, and I have no control over them. So maybe that’s something to reflect on.” To which Caroline says, “Whoah yeah.”
Certain types of demons are shape shifters, and according to demonicparadisewiki.com, “Shifters are driven by three simple instincts; consume, change, breed.” I read about a few iconic ones, like Loki, Proteus, the kumiho, and while many of them are conceived as evil-doers, they are also thought of as smart and carriers of truth. The title of the show, ‘Fear and Fantasy,’ spoke to that type of trickster energy. It’s as if the logic behind the trick-or-treat became introspective, asking, who am I today? Am I who I want to be? Am I my greatest fear or greatest fantasy? Which is worse? Caroline @cartsnax Alexander takes us to her breaking points and back, on what she calls “a quest through the dark caves of mania.”
In both cabarets, each act is authored by a different character. Caroline’s is more of a series of personas and ‘Across the Middle, Past the East’ is a veritable ensemble. Either way, the artistic responsibility is carried by many people who are artists each in their own right. Each act has a different vibe, and the job of the cabaret’s authors is not only to assemble the constellation, but hold space for how the acts accumulate and sharpen the angle of the overall event. I attended ‘Across the Middle…’ in its first iteration at Sophiensaele in 2018, and while I loved it then, what I saw now testifies to how worthwhile it is to let shows mature - a rarity in Berlin.
You walk in to the Heizhaus, with the high ceilings and decrepit walls giving old school glam. Gretch Blegen’s stunning hand-beaded lamps are hanging low and dim, shimmers refracting on the rhinestones that bedeck the costume. The tables are set with olives and nuts. Roni Katz came up to us with a bottle of arak and, all velvety, looking up from under long false eyelashes, said that the first bottle is on “us” and after that you can get what you need at the bar. It was so classy and I felt like I was in a real club. Enana, the emcee who that night taught me that emcee-ing is basically live dramaturgy, told us to relax and enjoy, that a happy bladder is an empty bladder. It was such a chill atmosphere. Previously I had gotten up to say hi to a friend’s daughter who has all of a sudden become a teenager, and was making friends with the people around my table. We were sipping the white anise liqueur, munching nuts, and spitting out olive pits. A few performers were playing a Palestinian-come-Lebanese card game called Quatorze cha7ta some tables away.
This succinct introduction to two analytical frameworks within New Materialism, the apparatus and the assemblage, allows me to venture into why the structure of ‘Across the Middle, Past the East’ and the cabaret format writ large, is such a potent contribution to the anti-normative projects percolating around me. An apparatus, like the theater space, is a way of looking at something and figuring out how power—spoken and unspoken—is organized, and therefore which matters matter. So for ‘Across the Middle…’, what matters is the complexity of Middle Eastern politics, in the sense that it is a show in which that complexity is staged. Each performer does their act, the backgrounds of each person are more or less explicitly said, the credits are clear. The collaborative and non-hierarchical nature of the process is unspoken but plain nevertheless. At one point, the audience is asked whether any German experts on anti-semitism are in attendance this evening, and when no one raises their hand, the performer says “schade” (pity!). Food is served, we break bread together. I’m saying there is an intentionality and boldness behind the piece’s apparatus, which sits within the apparatus of the theater, both in that it fulfills certain aspects, like the task of entertainment, and contradicts others.
But it’s also an assemblage of people, stories, and disparate elements that are known to be in conflict with one another and that are neither made to get along nor do anything in particular. An assemblage is the performance of composing agencies together in an “open-ended gathering” (Anna Tsing calls it this). This gathering allows us to ask about the communal effects of the elements without assuming them. What happens when these artists from the same area of the world dress up, serve booze, sing songs, and make jokes about Edward Said? Nobody knows for sure, but being there was a great time. Roni Katz has a monologue in which she describes how she imagined this show would go, something involving ‘Free Palestine’ written across the naked breasts of all the performers, and how somehow, that would only be possible in another world where things are neat and answerable. This isn’t possible in an assemblage, since an assemblage cannot be reduced to the sum of its parts.
Indeed no sum can be made of the degree of violence, trauma and blame, as well as the racisms and chimerical tales. At one point, Miranda de la Frontera took off, describing an imaginary orient which looked like “a mosque inside a harem which also has an opium den next to a souk where they sell flying carpets.” It turned out that there was space in this cabaret for such a salad of stereotypes, maybe because the cast was a delicious motley crew of people from places that don’t get along, and so little of it makes sense anyways. Indeed, no sum can be made of the joy, pleasure, and sense of humor that shimmered throughout this unsettled cabaret.
This edition of 5, 6, 7, 8was guest edited by Alice Heyward. Thank you Alice!
Across the Middle, Past the East
BY AND WITH Enana, Fulvia Dallal, Roni Katz, Sirine Malas, Lee Méir, Miranda De La Frontera GUESTS Prince Emrah, Selin Davasse CONCEPT Roni Katz, Lee Méir with dramaturgical support of Fulvia Dallal SOUND DESIGN Miranda De La Frontera TECHNICAL DIRECTOR AND LIGHTS Gretchen Blegen SOUND TECHNICIAN Catalina Fernandez PRODUCTION Saskia Schoenmaker MAKE UP Ilias Gkionis | Original piece made with the collaboration of: Moona Moon, Rasha Nahas, Annett Hardegen | Guests within the creation process: Sandra Noeth, Kattrin Deufert, Nedjma Hadj Benchelabi
Fear and Fantasy
Concept/Performance: Caroline Neill Alexander, Costume: Melisa Minca and Jack Randol, Dramaturgy: Jack Randol and Ivanka Tramp Ekemark, Sound Design: Fjóla Gautadóttir
I don’t have a lot to report. Right now I am writing, and it feels so good. Thank you to Fonds Darstellende Kunste for the research money.
I recommend listening to Melanie Jame and Martin’s podcast about the Superimposition. The text I wrote about their work should be available online soon, check insta for link in the next little while - it will also be available in German!