Keeping Amused with Leah Zeldes

Plays need more than underpinnings

I don't know about you, but I'm getting a little tired of actors in their underwear.

When Court Theatre opened "Tartuffe" a couple of years ago with the cast en dishabille, I thought, OK, French underwear is supposed to be funny. When "Chicago" came to town last year, I thought, OK, these barely clad people symbolize the underside of society, befitting the story's theme of "murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery and treachery." Anyway, the acting, music and dancing were so good that the cast could have worn flour sacks for all I cared.

But the trend continued. And now we have two more shows featuring half-dressed thespians.

At least Clara Abellard has an excuse -- the theater in which the Niles resident is performing her self-written and self-produced play, "The Queen Be," has no air conditioning. But "Cabaret," at the Shubert, has no such reason.

Yes, I know, the play is supposed to portray pre-World War II Berlin at its most decadent -- "tawdry and terrible." Yet even then, I doubt women went out on the street in their slips.

The producers of this revival, however, had a real dilemma. How do you take a show that shocked and titillated stage audiences in 1967 and film audiences in 1972, a show that everyone knows, and make it shocking and titillating to a fin de millenaire audience that's seen everything?

I don't know. But it takes more than tarting it up in sleazy underwear and turning the sexual innuendo into blatancy.

It would be hard to turn "Cabaret" into a bad show, though, and this production is far from that, even if it isn't one you want to take your kids to. The cast, particularly Rick Holmes as the American writer, Clifford Bradshaw, does a very good job. Barbara Andres and Dick Latessa, as the elderly landlady and her Jewish suitor, all but steal the show. If anything can wrench emotion from a jaded audience, their rendition of "Married" ought to. The songs are wonderful, as they always were.

Norbert Leo Butz, as the Emcee, plays this role in a very different way than the one we're used to -- coarser, realer -- but it works. Teri Hatcher is convincing as Sally Bowles, the down-on-her-luck (we can see why) cabaret singer. It's unfortunate that the directors chose to have her sing the title song in a teary, static pose. This fits the plot, but unfortunately gives the audience nothing to concentrate on but her voice ... and how much it doesn't measure up to Liza Minelli's.

The ending is stunningly effective, and very appropriate to the plot, but a less satisfying and entertaining finale for a musical than a "Cabaret" production number would have been.

The ending of "The Queen Be" is even less satisfying, despite the fact that the heroine finally gets to put on some clothes. To be sure, there's nothing tawdry or titillating about the corset and bloomers that Abellard wears through most of the show, an apparently autobiographical account of the unhappy childhood of the troubled and hyperimaginative daughter of self-absorbed, well-to-do parents. Along with the usual Jewish teen-age angst, young Timna (pronounced "TEEM-na," Abellard's original name) suffers from painful digestive disorders, has strange and distressing visions and is participating in an active and disruptive affair with a fantasy lover.

Tim Garnhart and Angela Bullard perform very creditably as the awful parents and Richard Richards is quite delicious as the urbane and imaginary lover.

Abellard is at her best when she is at her most natural: recounting amusing incidents from Timna's past, trading insults with her friend Bill (Jay Harnish), arguing with her parents, trying to banish her nonexistent but importunate lover till after school. Often quite funny, these are the most enjoyable parts of the play as well as of Abellard's performance.

But as both actress and playwright she becomes stilted and sappy when she tries to deliver what she clearly considers the higher message of her play, mouthing platitudes like, "I am the highest frequency in this universe" and "To pretend is to want. To decide is to limit your possibilities."

The play culminates with a sort of exorcism of the suddenly incubus- and demonlike lover and a tiresome forgiveness scene with Bill and the parents, after which the actress dons the raiment of Elizabeth I, pronouncing, "I am God's victorious light," and telling us we are all kings and queens. The symbolism is clear -- she is finally clothed and complete. But she fails to convey believably to the audience the cloak of spirituality that has evidently given her such comfort and redemption.

"Cabaret" continues Tuesdays through Sundays through July 25 at the Shubert Theatre, 22 W. Monroe St., Chicago. Tickets range from $30 to $75. About 30 seats have been set up cabaret-style at the front of the theater; these cost $75, the same price as peak-time orchestra seats. Call TicketMaster, (312) 902-1500, for a complete schedule and prices.

"The Queen Be" plays at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays through July 16, on the fifth floor of the Preston Bradley Center, 941 W. Lawrence Ave., Chicago. Tickets are $14. Call (773) 787-9177.

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