February 2, 2020

Me and Celeste Burnum in Cabaret

It’s 11:30 PM on a Saturday and I am way overdue for a long post. I’ve kept coming up with excuses for myself to keep from writing over the last few weeks; some of them around the show, some around other aspects of life. But, I promised myself I would do some writing this weekend at some point and this seems as good a time as any. When I have a performance, I come off stage somewhat energized and it generally takes me a couple of hours to calm the brain down and get to the point where I can get some sleep, so I’ve been staying up past midnight most of the last few weeks. The alarm still goes off at 6:45 on work days so I’ve been operating in a bit of a sleep deprived state. It doesn’t bother me too much but every year that goes by, it gets a little harder and a little harder to put in the fourteen hour days between medicine and music/theater. I’ll be 58 in a few months. It seems slightly unreal. It’s also one of those ages that just seems dull and uninteresting, not even a prime number.

The big events of the last few weeks are two. The first, which I wrote about when it happened, was the death of my mother. It was not unexpected as a concept as she had been suffering from late stage dementia for a number of years but there was no period of decline or warning and her sudden death in her sleep caught us all a bit off guard. One of the great ironies of my life, as a geriatric physician skilled in the management of dementia and family systems with demented elders, is my inability to do much of anything to mitigate the course of my mother’s disease. Her dementia was not of the common Alzheimer’s type. The pattern was more of a frontal lobe Picks type with the first deficits coming in language and memory issues only making themselves known later. This was cruel to my mother with her love of language, words, and literature. It’s a familial disease. We have family letters and other documents stretching back 150 years referring to elders of previous generations ‘going mute’ as they reached their 80s. Her grandmother had a similar pattern. Her mother died at age 75 and so was too young to have manifested any issues. As these disease processes tend to be autosomal dominant, I have a 50% chance of carrying the genetic propensity to a similar fate should I live long enough. It’s a good thing that I have no plans to live to a hundred and five. I’ve seen far too much of what happens when you outstay your warranty.

We’ve decided we will have a memorial service in the spring, probably in late April (as this will work best with the various schedules that have to be coordinated). I’ll give further details as they become available for those in the Seattle area who might wish to attend. I’m trying to bury my more recent memories of my mother, the ones caught up in dealing with the realities of her disease and disabilities, in favor of more distant memories of a healthy and vibrant woman with a myriad of activities and interests. The one who encouraged my career choice when I serendipitously fell into Geriatrics, the one who tried to be a good mother in law to Steve, and later Tommy, even when it was difficult, the one who found my MNM columns riotously funny and who always got even my worst jokes and puns as they all came out of the very British sense of humor I inherited from her. When I was a young adult, my mother and I would go to British films at the art house and laugh uproariously at jokes that went over the heads of most Americans. She had been raised in a culturally British household and I inherited that sensibility from her as her eldest child. From a very young age, I inhabited a world of English talismans – Beatrix Potter, Mary Poppins, the Andrew Lang fairy books, The Wind in the Willows, The Borrowers, and all the other fantastical characters of British juvenile literature. Read aloud by my parents, pored over on the floor of my bedroom – many of the volumes remain on my shelves to this day. I don’t remember being taught to read. I just did it. My parents claim I taught myself somewhere around age 3, marching in to them and demanding to know what this or that word was. All I remember was arriving at kindergarten capable of reading the newspaper and the teacher not quite knowing what to do with me when it came to reading lessons.

I wonder what she would think of Cabaret? My parents are of the Silent generation. Too young to have participated in World War II but very aware of its horrors as children, having been 6 when it began, 9 when Pearl Harbor catapulted America into the war and 12 at the end when the horrors of the camps were revealed. When I was in elementary school, I went through a World War II period where I read everything I could find in the library about the Nazis and the war in Europe and I remember asking my mother about it. She told me a little bit about what it was like to have the news coverage come in through the paper and Life magazine, about blackouts and air raid drills (she was from San Francisco and after Pearl Harbor, everyone assumed the bombs would begin to fall there next). But she never went into much detail. She wasn’t one to ever really talk about her childhood and adolescence. Even my father, married to her for 63 years, knows little about her early life. Over the years, I’ve had to glean a lot from my cousins. Their mother, her sister, was more open about their girlhood than my mother ever was. When I was about ten, I remember my parents going to see the film version of Cabaret when it was new. I was left with the babysitter. The next day, I asked my mother to explain the movie to me. I don’t remember much of what she had to say but I did get the impression that she had enjoyed it, that it had something to do with the Nazis, and that there was a nightclub involved. I didn’t see the film myself until I was in high school when I went to see it at The Harvard Exit, one of the classic revival houses that were everywhere in the 70s until the rise of home video. A few years later, in college, I worked on the show for the first time as a stage hand and had a brief appearance as a Nazi in the first act finale.

Cabaret finale – me in the hat

This production of Cabaret is taking a lot out of me. Not physically, it’s not that hard a role, but the amount of psychic energy is draining the stamina. I come off stage energized, but drained at the same time. Some of that is the impeccable direction of the show by Dane Peterson. He has found the key to the show, recognizing it as a seduction of the audience by all the tawdry titillating detail of the collapsing Weimar Republic but which, shortly before the first act curtain, turns everything on its head and ultimately makes the audience complicit in the horrors that are to come through a dark and unrelenting second act. The cast has become comfortable enough with the material and production over the last few weeks to really listen to the audience at both act finales and the gasps and sobs that come at certain moments make us recognize how powerful the piece is. We’re also the beneficiaries of historical accident. The headlines in today’s newspapers are reflected in the politics of the show in some very uncomfortable ways. A friend after the show tonight said something about how some lines seem to have been interpolated or punched up for the current political moment but they’re not – they’re the same as they’ve always been in the script. We’re just now primed to hear them differently.

Birmingham no longer has a daily newspaper or theater critic so I can’t link to a formal review of the show. The buzz from people who know something about theater has been very positive indeed so we’re all pretty certain that this is a solid production. I’ve been getting a lot of compliments on my performance – things like charming and full of heart. Schultz and Schneider are the heart of the show. They’re the real emotion as compared to the superficial ersatz relationships that characterize most of the rest of the cast. They truly love each other, not relying on transactional decision making, and their being pulled apart by political changes beyond their control is heart breaking. It’s such a great role. I get to laugh, cry, kiss, get drunk, show up in my underwear, sing a couple of great songs, and dance a romantic waltz. I could easily continue this show for months, especially opposite the lovely Celeste Burnum who is so damned good that it makes my job easy.

I’ve had my ‘it’s winter and I’m doing a musical’ cold the last few days. It started to lift today. it made me a bit raspy, but fortunately no major laryngitis. Even with yesterday’s performance when I was at my worst, I was able to hit my notes. It wasn’t always pretty, but then again, that’s the character. I’ve always been able to sing in character without being the least bit self conscious. Ask me to sing as myself and I get all nervous and worry constantly about how bad I am compared to all of the highly trained professionals I work amongst. I can’t explain it. It’s just the way I’m put together.

I had the broken grates leading into the basement all repaired finally this afternoon and covered with wire mesh. I set a live trap in the basement before departing for the theater and returned home to find a very unhappy possum inside. He has been returned to the backyard where he can continue to eat insects to his hearts content. I rather like possums. I just don’t want them in the house. I think he’s been coming in and out of the basement for some time. I’m going to reset the trap tomorrow just in case he has a friend who’s still hiding in one of the dark corners behind the washer or something.

I’ve been writing for an hour now. I don’t know if I’ve accomplished anything or if it’s all so much drivel. Time for a hot shower. (The post herpetic neuralgia is still there from this summer and a hot shower before bed helps a lot). Then a little Netflix before falling asleep. I should begin on an MNM column but I think that will have to wait for tomorrow, after the matinee. Cabaret doesn’t really lend itself to matinee performance but one must consider the audience that doesn’t like to drive after dark.

One thought on “February 2, 2020

  1. I’ve started reading your blog posts ever since your father sent out a link to everyone at Aljoya. Your comments about remembering your mother before Alzheimer’s destroyed the woman you knew. Mine went down a different path. A college educated bilingual world traveling woman entered a hospital to re-do a hip replacement and emerged three months later unable to chain together the steps to feed herself when she was hungry and food was right in front of her. She died and was resuscitated after a little too long. She lived nearly three more years. I thought after she died, I’d only remember the healthy Elsie but I spent so much time with the little sweet lady who was all that remained that it took several years before I was able to picture her healthy. But time passed and now I just see the woman who loved me.

    I’m enjoying your posts and periodically dipping back to earlier posts..


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