Halfway through the final night of last month's cabaret at the Crystal Theatre, one of the singers stepped in to rescue the audience. We'd all been laughing and clapping far too quietly, she explained. We weren't wolf whistling or bantering enough. There she'd been, up on stage in her busty dress, spiky high heels and fishnet stockings that crisscrossed over tattooed legs, belting out a searing rendition of Peggy Lee's "Fever," and everybody had politely waited to clap after she'd finished the song. This would not do.
For the next half of the performance she proceeded to lead us in the art of audience rowdiness. And, it was a lesson well learned. That annoying, drunk guy in the front row who appeared to be out of line the first half of the show for yelling "Woo-hoo!" and "Yeah, baby!" had been right all along. Cabaret's not for the bashful, and it was time, as an audience, for us to do our part.
The production, put on by the Montana Actors' Theatre (MAT) and directed by Cameron Fehring, included the commonly used ingredients of most cabarets: dance, songs and mini-skits, peppered with improvisation and chock full of sexual innuendo. The company took a German Expressionist spin on cabaret—a style MAT also employed last December for its production of A Christmas Carol—using dark, angular costumes and covering the performers' faces in white make-up, black eyeliner and red lipstick to give a sort of morbid appearance.
"We wanted a combination of music, dancing and comedy with a thematic storyline," says Grant Olson, MAT's artistic director. "Cabarets are often racy. We wanted that racy sort of thing, but darker."
The production's soundtrack showcased music running the gamut from classics like "Fly Me to the Moon" to Gloria Gaynor's "I Am What I Am," which Fehring sang deadpan, dressed in drag. Toward the end of the night, as the audience grew bolder, so did the music. One singer dished out the aptly dark and racy "An Old-fashioned [Lesbian] Love Story," which includes lines like: "See that girl on the bed, how she wants me/ She's a bee I could free from the hive. I would never dare deceive her/She's a very clever beaver/With a quality I like/She's alive!"
Despite dark overtones, there's nothing depressing about MAT's cabaret. A live band with piano, stand-up bass and drums scored the entire show under the warm glow of a spotlight. They often became part of the banter when the MC chose to chide them. The bartender from The Silk Road restaurant walked through the audience taking drink orders for wine and beer as dancers in barely anything at all swaggered and high kicked.
The improv aspect of a cabaret makes it light, too, but it also makes it feel a bit dangerous. Lulls in onstage banter suddenly put the flow of the theatrics in peril. You can often tell when something is unscripted, like when the MC mischievously steps onstage to ogle the unwitting dancers or when one of the singers spills her martini and stops mid-note to demand another. It's sort of exhilarating.
As an audience member you must be prepared for confrontation. In this cabaret, at least, there is no inkling of a fourth wall. From the very beginning, that empty seat next to you is fair game for any of the performers who might pick you out as their personal prop. The MC doesn't just deliver lines to the back of the room, he asks questions to the audience, takes note of what you're wearing, asks you to get up on stage and do a dance. When one of the performers steps off the stage and walks toward you, you truly feel invested in what happens next.
"Part of the fun for us is seeing how far we can push the audience in their comfort level," says Olson.
With so much improvisation and so many opportunities for the performance to diverge from the stage, every show ends up being completely different. On opening night, for instance, the MC happened to pick on a Bulgarian professor in the crowd who knew German fluently. The MC started throwing out crass German phrases at the professor, and the professor came back with his own lines without missing a beat.
The improvisation isn't just limited to the performance. As it turns out, the troupe hardly even planned last month's debut. While Olson and Fehring had spoken in general about putting on the show, the actual rehearsal for production didn't get under way until a week and a half before the curtain. The result, however, was positive enough for the company to decide they'd do one every month, perhaps with a bit more advance warning.
For the next cabaret, Fehring has written some original songs to complement some of the classics. By then, Olson hopes that the audiences will be ready to get a little braver.
"We want no holds barred, shout-out, get-up-and-sing behavior," he says. "It's much less normal than a typical theater situation."
It's not easy to break loose from your inhibitions when so many forms of entertainment expect you to sit still and wait for your turn to clap. But in my recent experience, the rowdiness of the cabaret experience doesn't let you be polite for long. By the last song, "Schadenfreude," when the whole cast got out onstage and sang about how much joy they take in the misfortune of others, all sung with wild abandon and a shower of expletives, there was no civility. It was just plain, hedonistic fun.
MAT's cabaret returns to the Crystal Theatre Thursday, Oct. 8—Saturday, Oct. 10, at 8 PM. $7.