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Divine Decadence

[whitespace] The Untamed Stage

'The Untamed Stage' Returns

By Michelle Goldberg

There's a cabaret almost every night in San Francisco, from the polished dinner entertainment at Piaf's to the bawdy genderfuck dada of Trannyshack, but all of them have their roots in the decadent, lascivious and hyper-intelligent Berliner Kabarett of the 1920s. Last summer, impresario Scrumbly Koldewyn (of the legendary Cockettes) recreated that nihilism-tinged Weimar elegance for one night, and it was so wildly successful that he's bringing the show back for a month in the lush confines of 7th Note Showclub.

Unlike other local cabarets, The Untamed Stage is scrupulously faithful to the Berlin style. All of the songs are English translations of German cabaret songs, and the costumes and ambiance are true to the dissipated Teutonic glamour of that age. Like the Berliner Kabarett, where legitimate theater stars would let loose after-hours with their most provocative work, the Untamed Stage players are professionals and it shows. Robert Ernst is an ACT veteran who set the world record for longest continuous performance (24 hours and one minute). Helen Shumaker has won countless acting honors, including an Emmy and three Dramalogue awards. Leigh Crow, also known as Elvis Herselvis, made a star turn in the astounding glam-rock musical Above and Beyond the Valley of the Ultra Showgirls. The other stars--David Bicha, Arturo Galster, Cindy Goldfield and Erin-Kate Whitcomb--have similarly impressive résumés.

This isn't a talent show for dilettantes--the show's songs are as tight and catchy as Broadway hits (while the lyrics range from playfully insinuating to militantly subversive). The hilariously anti-man "Raus," for instance, recalls Valerie Solanis' SCUM Manifesto. Erin-Kate Whitcomb spits out the venomous chorus with delicious bug-eyed stridency, "Chuck all the men out of the Reichstag, chuck all the men out of the courthouse, men are the problem of humanity, benighted by their vanity." Other tunes include "When the Best Girlfriend," a sugary lesbian duet that was first performed by Margo Lion and Marlene Dietrich, and the rousing gay anthem "Lavender Song." Seventy years later, the latter's defiant sing-a-long chorus has a special poignancy, since we all know what followed that brief period of freedom: "After all, we're different from the others/If that means hell, well hell we'll take the chance/They're all so straight, uptight, upright and rigid/They march in lock step, we prefer to dance."

Of course, in 1999 we relate to this material much differently than its original audiences did. Then, it was truly dangerous, an art form pioneered by gays, Jews and leftists. Their country was on the verge of going insane, and their commitment to hedonism was about to be smashed by tyranny. It's ironic that we, basking in freedoms of which they'd never dreamed, would be nostalgic for this era, but, given all the cabarets and speakeasy-style bars in town, we apparently are. There's an energy to the songs in Untamed Stage that comes from real transgression, a transgression that's not really popular in our culture of hip capitalism. Beneath the jaded blasé lyrics to a song like "Maskulinum-Femininum" or "I'm a Vamp" is a palpable glee at their own cheekiness, a kind of innocence. "Onstage, it's way more alive than just nostalgia," says Bicha. That's the paradox--this show isn't just an exercise in retro-chic. It's sexier and more stimulating than much of what we have now, and in some ways it belies our arrogant belief in our own sophistication, even though in exhibitionist terms it's much tamer than most of what you see on a Sunday afternoon stroll down Castro Street. Berliner Kabarett is to, say, the Folsom Street Fair what Gypsy Rose Lee is to the desultory girls grinding their way through college at the O'Farrell Theater.

"When your subculture is really and truly oppressed in a way that it's not today, then when you finally get to express yourself it's really dynamic. Now, because there is so much freedom inherent in our San Francisco world, it's a little bit less interesting," says Whitcomb. "The difference between that period and this period is that it was being created then, and now we're repeating it. It's like pre-Stonewall drag versus drag now."

Adds production coordinator John Karr, "Somehow it seemed wittier or more stylish then. They had mud wrestling and nudity, but not quite in the way we do. It was more of a writerly expression. They were much like the hippies that always said, 'We're going to change the world,' not knowing that they weren't going to. This was a generation that thought these expressions they were giving vent to had meaning and purpose and were going to create a better society. What we lack now is their desperation, because we're all sitting pretty, we have dinner on the table, we have jobs, we just want to go out and be on the edge, go slumming. In the '20s, there was a true edge to it. The stakes were different. It's that desperation that provides the air of what we call decadence."

It would be insane to long for that kind of desperation, especially since we know what came next. But it's impossible not to appreciate the sublime bite of subversion that infused the avant-garde when it was still possible to épater the bourgeoisie.


The Untamed Stage plays Fri and Sat thru Mar 25, 8pm; 7th Note Showclub, 916 Columbus Ave; $15 plus a two-drink minimum; 415/820-3217.

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From the March 15, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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