A Night at the Theater

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Last year, as you might recall, I went to a strip club in Mumbai. Ok, there was no stripping per se, and the girls showed less skin than a bride at an Amish wedding, but it left me feeling dirty, nonetheless. You would think that since then, I would stick to more wholesome travel activities. Well, dear reader, you would be wrong.

I’ve been prowling around Berlin a lot lately, and it’s not exactly a city known for its self-restraint. People talk of Berlin like retired baby-boomers speak of Bangkok; it’s a place where if you are not careful, you can lose yourself in a bad way. Despite rampant gentrification, Berlin’s seedy side is just below the surface. Drugs, prostitution, this city has its fair share of temptations.

Luckily, I have no desire to shoot heroin into my veins or get a bad case of the clap, but I still couldn’t help indulging in what may be one of Berlin’s greatest hedonistic pastimes: kabarett. And before any of you prudish Americans start moralizing, let me remind you that it’s the 100th anniversary of the birth Bauhaus and the roaring Weimar Republic. So I have a good historical reason for going.

It may come as something of a surprise, but good old-timey kabarett doesn’t quite have the popularity it once did. There are only a handful of establishments offering shows, and after careful consideration, I chose the burlesque theater Kleine Nachtrevue, mainly because its smaller intimate environment is more representative of the kind of venue that would have been popular in the 1920s.

Kleine Nachtrevue is owned and managed by Sylvia Schmid, who has been at this game for over 20 years and is still a performer. As I was later to learn, almost everyone working at Kleine Nachtrevue, including the bartender, would be up on stage at one time or another.

The show started with a short gag involving airline stewardesses and safety instructions aboard “Titty Airlines,” a bit on the nose if you ask me, but the humor was moderately entertaining. It was followed by a series of routines, some more serious than others, but all containing a heavy dose of nudity.

I would have liked to say that after pushing the buzzer and being ushered into a small room with a bar, some wooden tables, and stage, I was transported back to the golden years of Berlin. After all, Kleine Nachtrevue has been featured as a location in the hit series Babylon Berlin. The ambiance was certainly right. And there was nothing seedy at all about the audience, which was comprised mainly of couples. However, this was not Weimar era kabarett but burlesque.

For most people, kabarett and burlesque are synonymous; however, there is quite a bit of difference. And in Germany, kabarett takes on a whole different meaning from its Parisian cousin. Today’s burlesque (or rather neo-burlesque) isn’t just modern, but an American invention, born in the showrooms of New York in the 1990s. These were variety-theater performances heavy on nudity. In contrast, 1920s German kabarett was centered on social and political commentary, extremely satirical, and rather dark. There was a gravity to kabarett that is currently lacking in the kitschy world of neo-burlesque.

Is it worth going to Kleine Nachtrevue? That depends. If you’re looking for a flashy stage production akin to something out of Las Vegas, then no. Honestly, some of the routines looked apter for a high school talent show than paying customers, but Kleine Nachtrevue does achieve a nice level of comfortable intimacy. In contrast to what I experienced in Mumbai, the women (and men) were firmly in control, determining the appropriate amount of space between them and the audience. The evening contained its moments of artistic beauty and titillation. I wouldn’t call it high art, but everyone was having a good time, and there are certainly worse ways to spend an evening.

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