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Come to the cabarets

by Pauline Dubkin Yearwood

One-woman show explores bygone Jewish artists

Last March, cabaret artist Rebecca Joy Fletcher presented “Cities of Light,” her show exploring 1920s Jewish cabaret in Europe and Israel, for one performance to introduce herself to Chicago audiences. There was a massive snowstorm that night and hardly anyone saw the show.

This year, Fletcher is counting on a different result. She is performing the one-woman cabaret musical for three performances, May 14, 16 and 17 at Stage 773 in Chicago and four more on May 27, 28, 30 and 31 at the Skokie Theatre. The performances are presented by ShPieL-Performing Identity and also feature ShPieL’s David Chack performing “The Salon of Jewish-American Song” after Fletcher’s show.

“Cities of Light,” which Fletcher has performed in many American and international cities, is about cabaret but is not really a cabaret show, she explained in a recent phone conversation. She prefers to call it a one-woman musical.

The “one woman” refers to Fletcher as performer, but also as a character in the play, a Jewish cabaret artist living in Berlin in the early 1920s.

“She’s looking for a place where she can continue to thrive and live freely as a Jew and still advance her art form,” Fletcher says. “We travel with her through the cabarets of Berlin and Paris, the Yiddish cabarets in Warsaw, which were very vibrant. Eventually she makes her way to Palestine before the founding of the state, which had a very vibrant cabaret culture.”

The music is all composed by Jewish composers and is sung in its original form but with English lyrics. “It’s more fun for the audience that way,” Fletcher says. “Cabaret is a very topical art form, and you really have to understand what the songs are saying. They’re not just pretty melodies.”

Her goal, she says, is “for the songs to pop the way they would have” during the time when the show takes place.

Authentic cabaret, she says, is different from the American direction the art form has taken.

“European cabaret was satiric cabaret,” she says. “It was a very timely art form. There was a lot of politics, satire. It took place in small spaces and the emcee might say something directly to you. It was making fun of what was going on, and for Jews in Warsaw and Palestine during the 1930s there was a lot to make fun of.”

In Berlin after World War I, where this kind of cabaret flourished, Jews were the predominant artists, Fletcher, who spent three years researching “Cities of Light,” says. “Jews were at the cutting edge of this art form all across Europe,” she says.

“One of my goals was to put these four cities side by side and show the way cabaret expressed itself. You see a kind of kaleidoscope and it’s also the story of one woman, a journey from being a cabaret artist who happens to be Jewish to a Jew who makes cabaret,” she says.

A secondary benefit to the show, Fletcher says, is that it exposes people to a period and art form that they usually know little about. “It fills in the picture of who we were as a people back in Europe. It wasn’t all ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’” she says.

Fletcher has performed “Cities of Light” in theaters from Paris to Warsaw to Jerusalem to London and many U.S. cities. Now she is excited, she says, to bring it to her adopted home town.

A native of Los Angeles, Fletcher lived in New York for 15 years, where she was ordained and worked as a cantor as well as a performer, educator and scholar-in-residence at various venues. Her first show was “Kleynkunst!” about Warsaw’s Yiddish-language cabarets. It played off-Broadway in 2007.

She soon discovered that, as a theater artist, Chicago was just where she needed to be.

“I’m really interested in creating and touring new works of Jewish theater, reimagining and pushing forward what Jewish theater today can be, what it can look like, how innovative it can be,” she says, adding that she believes Chicago’s Jewish community would be open to such works.

“Jewish theater in the United States is going through some changes,” she says. “There is some interesting work coming out of pockets of places. I tell people sometimes that I’m combating their negative stereotypes of what Jewish theater is. They think it’s all ‘Old Jews Telling Jokes.’ That’s a great show, but limited. We have such a rich treasure trove of history, text, where we are at today.”

Her show, Fletcher says, “has been significantly revised” since last year’s performance. “This is the best version of the show yet. In the last year of performing the show, it became really clear to me that we’re not talking about a historical museum piece. It’s about a time in history. People come back into that time and feel it with excitement and freshness,” she says.

“It is not really a Holocaust piece even though it happened in its looming shadow, between 1933 and the beginning of the war,” she adds. “It really is a celebration of a world that existed before, and Jewish artists were at the heart of the action. It is so timely.”

 

Fletcher performs “Cities of Light” May 14, 16 and 17 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, Chicago, and May 27, 28, 30 and 31 at the Skokie Theatre, 7924 N. Lincoln Ave., Skokie. For times and tickets, $26 and $26.50, call (773) 327-5252 or visit www.stage773.com for Stage 773 or (847) 677-7761 or www.skokietheatre.com for Skokie Theatre.

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