My (tongue-tied) moment in the DPAC spotlight

April 23, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
April 23, 2016

A year ago, my pal Andrew, the proprietor of Mammoth Data, graciously offered me several passes to the 2015 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, which enabled me to review several movies for this blog. On Thursday, Andrew struck again, offering me the chance to accompany him to the Roundabout Theatre Company touring production of the 1966 musical Cabaret. (As it happens, this year marks the 50th birthday of both Roundabout and Cabaret.) Reader, I said Yes!

Andrew, whom I first met through Twitter, had actually seen the production in its local debut on Wednesday evening at the Durham Performing Arts Center, or DPAC. But he was offered three tickets for Thursday night’s performance and wanted to go again, this time with his middle-school-aged child; luckily for me, he gave me a chance to tag along. Especially lucky for me, these were terrific seats.

I dressed in khaki slacks and comfortable-but-appropriate-for-the-office shoes and went to get a haircut, which I’d been putting off for a number of weeks. I met Andrew and son outside of Mammoth’s office in downtown Durham and we walked over to DPAC.

After picking up tickets from will-call and sitting on South Mangum Street for a few minutes — where we had an excellent view of both the jail and the adjacent county courthouse, which was built where it was in part to screen the jail from motorists passing downtown on the Durham Freeway. Then we headed in.

The ticket taker told Andrew that the show dealt with very mature content and themes. Andrew said he understood, and the ticket taker told him that she was required to say that to those entering with younger spectators.

Andrew nodded agreeably and said that he wanted his son to see this particular show. He put his arm around his son and grinning impishly, saying, “he’s already spoiled.” The four of us laughed.

As we walked up the ramp in the lobby, I told Andrew that I thought he was going to tell the ticket taker that I was mature enough to handle the show. He chuckled.

We stopped at a refreshment stand to stock up on water and sugared nuts before taking our seats.

I noticed a woman sitting on the very corner of the stage at house right. (That’s the viewer’s right, which experienced theatrical hands would call stage left.) She had a notebook computer in her lap. I asked an usher what she was doing there and he gestured to the electronic signboard positioned a few feet away from her chair. She was operating the closed-captioning system, as it turned out. I referred to the signboard a couple of times during some of the songs and some of the German passages.

For instance, the captioning helped me decipher this passage from “Don’t Tell Mama,” which my brain for whatever didn’t properly process when I heard it:

Thinks I’m on a tour of Europe
With a couple of my school chums
And a lady chaperone
Doesn’t even have an inkling
That I left them all in Antwerp

(Granted, Europe and Antwerp aren’t exactly natural rhymes.)

Shortly before intermission, Andrew and his son stood up and walked to the exit; I presume one of them needed to use the bathroom. When the lights came up, they hadn’t returned. I filed out to the lobby with the rest of the crowd in order to stretch my legs and get in some steps.

I stood by one of the exits and contemplated going outside to get a bit of fresh air. I opted not to when I heard one of the ushers ask people leaving if they needed their ticket scanned so they’d be able to re-enter the theater. A significant number of people declined to do this, which surprised me, as both the show and the cast were excellent. I suppose that a lot of folks weren’t prepared for the musical’s loose attitudes toward sexuality, dark tone and Nazism. (If you don’t know, the story is set in Berlin and begins hours before Jan. 1, 1930; much of the action takes place in the seedy Kit Kat Klub.)

I paced around the lobby, sipping from my water bottle and checking my smartphone. After a quick pit stop, I returned to my seat. Andrew and his son were already occupying theirs.

We chatted about the performance for a few minutes before the cast, who double as musicians, started returning to the stage. The transvestite character of the Emcee, or master of ceremonies — played in this instance by Randy Harrison — came out and greeted the audience.

His brief patter included a reference to House Bill 2. If you don’t know — and you should! — HB2 is North Carolina’s awful new transphobic supposed bathroom safety law that, not so incidentally, contains some provisions that are both major and wholly unrelated to the bill’s stated purpose. The law, of course, has made North Carolina a national laughingstock after being passed and signed over the course of a single-day special legislative session. (The website Real Facts NC has a pretty comprehensive roundup of events and business expansions that have been cancelled or reconsidered as part of a widespread artistic and corporate backlash to the law.)

Harrison said he hoped the spectators had enjoyed intermission. He asked if we’d downed a drink and “had a tinkle.” The audience giggled at the euphemism.

Then Harrison said, “Lucky you. I tried — they wouldn’t let me in.”

The audience applauded vigorously. The unspoken sentiment in the room seemed to be that we were united in opposition to HB2.

Harrison next launched into what he described as an audience participation segment. He went to stage right, descended to floor level, and invited a blond-haired woman in a lovely black dress to come to the stage. They danced while the Emcee chattered away: Her name was Liz, and when she told the Emcee that she’d never been to the Kit Kat Club, he jokingly referred to her as a virgin.

Moments before, as the lights had dimmed, I’d stashed my empty, flattened water bottle and my program on the seat, pinning it down with my right thigh. Around this time, however, I shifted these things to the floor.

The Emcee bade the woman farewell, moved over to stage left, and descended the stairs. “Now I feel like a man,” he said, extending an arm to me. “But you’ll do.”

I laughed as I stood up and accompanied the Emcee to the stage. (Remember, I said these were terrific seats.)

The Emcee asked me for my name, as he had Liz. For some reason, in that moment, I decided that I had to give a fake name. Unfortunately, it took me a moment to come up with one. I considered “Jack” but decided against it. My mind scrambled to devise an alternative.

So there I was, standing before a packed house, grinning foolishly. The Emcee prompted me again for my name. “Herbert,” I said, trying to sound certain.

Herbert happens to be the middle name of a long-dead relative, although I don’t think that occurred to me in the moment. I believe I chose the moniker because it struck me as sounding vaguely Germanic — and indeed, when I checked on Friday, it is a Germanic name. (It’s actually derived from two German words, hari meaning “army” and beraht meaning “bright.”)

We danced for about 10 seconds before the Emcee ushered me back to the staircase. An usher stationed at the foot of the steps — there were only three or four — offered her hand to assist me; I declined, instead keeping my eyes on my feet as I descended. I managed, I think (I hope!), to get to my seat without making myself seem any more foolish than I already had.

I settled back into my seat and tried to refocus on the play; it took me a few minutes to transition from Briefly famous performer! back to regular theater-goer.

But I successfully did so, and I settled in to watch Cabaret’s second act. Spoiler alert (for a half-century-old musical): It’s rather grim.

But it’s a fantastic show, and I had a terrific time. Thanks again, Andrew!

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