Marlene Leads a Seminar (With a Little Help from Bearded Ladies)
Actor-singer John Jarboe is the uber-Marlene in the Bearded Ladies zany and dark cabaret Marlene and the Machine, currently at the Wilma Theater. Jarboe adds the great German/American actress to his gallery of star incarnations (namely Edith Piaf and James Bond) with which the Beardeds skewer gender perceptions. None may be more apt than Marlene Dietrich, whose androgynous image is part of Hollywood legend.
In the show, which continues through December 15, 2012 at the Wilma Theatre, Jarboe plays Dietrich as part of a group leading a seminar on "Affect Management," a tutorial on manipulating others by mastering your own emotions.
In a thigh-slit satin gown, mile-high gams and mercury eye shadow, Jarboe struts and falters as a flawlessly preserved but tired star who is looking to clone herself as things go awry.
After the show’s sold-out opening night, Jarboe elaborated on Dietrich’s tie to the Weimar Republic, the term to describe the German government from the end of the First World War to the rise of the Nazis. It was a tumultuous period in the nation’s history, largely due to the harsh surrender terms Germans accepted after the Armistice in 1918 that led to massive inflation in the early 1920s. It was also a period of sexual freedom, most notably in Berlin where gay life thrived; and cultural breakthroughs, such as the musicals of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill; the architecture of the Bauhaus School; and the films of Fritz Lang and Josef von Sternberg.
It was von Sternberg who introduced Dietrich to the world with "The Blue Angel," which made her an overnight sensation as the cabaret star Lola Lola.
"This piece is, like the Weimar (Republic), is complicated and dark...," he explained. "It (the show) is more about that specific era of music and the German roots of cabaret, than any individual was. We decided that Marlene would be part of that because she bridges cabaret and German films of the period, which we were interested in."
He describes the show as "very collaborative" with music that "has kind of a madness.
"There’s a bunch of Weimar-era songs -- it all feels it’s from that world and atmosphere from the Weimar. The goal of ’Marlene’ we’re asking questions with Marlene about emotion and control and technology. So it reflects both the Weimar and from some things going on now."
The show’s musical accompaniment includes ingenious arrangements by pianist by Heath Allen. Kristen Bailey, Liz Filios, and Kate Raines play Marlene’s haywire minions singing Weimar era songs from Dietrich’s iconic "Falling in Love Again" to Peggy Lee’s Dietrich-like homage, "Is That All There Is."
Two years ago Jarboe and the Bearded Ladies had a considerable success with "No Regrets: A Piaf Affair," their show about the great French cabaret singer, which led to a question about if there were similarities between the two stars.
"No," Jarboe replied. "Dietrich is a much different figure than Piaf even though they were contemporaries."
The Bearded have been developing three different cabaret shows as part of A Knight Foundation grant, of which "Marlene and the Machine" is the first. It will be followed by a Civil War cabaret at The Kimmel Center as part of their PIFA festival next year and the third to be announced.
The grant has been a welcome boost for the group.
"For starters, because of the grant we had the funding to rehearse for seven weeks. So loading into the theater this time was so smooth from what we are used to," Jarboe said.
The Bearded are at the forefront of what is becoming a thriving cabaret scene in Philly. "It is such an underrepresented form and there are so many talented people in Philly that thrive in it. For me, I stumbled into cabaret. I love musicals, as any gay theater boy does, but I’m interested in theater that asked questions.
"What I love about cabaret as opposed to musicals is that it’s not building a fantasy world where people sing. The informality of it allows you to go to unexpected places as a performer," Jarboe said.
The Bearded Ladies’ Marlene and the Machine at the Wilma Theater on Broad St. through December 15, 2012. For more information, visit the theater’s website or call 215.546.7824.