The Nazis persecuted not only Jews, political opponents and its own, but also homosexuals. Jews were forced to wear the infamous yellow stars; gays, the pink triangle.
Alan Palmer, in his one-man show Chanteuse at HERE Arts Center, gives an intimate, heartbreaking look at one victim—fictional or not—that turns impersonal facts into passionate theater.
The opening number sets the scene in this almost completely sung-through monodrama. Palmer sings of a young Englishman named Werner who, in the 1920’s leaves a repressive family and society to move to fun-loving, debauched, gay-friendly Berlin where he finds a home-away-from-home at a gay club, Silhouette in the free-wheeling Schönberg section of Berlin where drag acts are the thing. (Comparisons to Cabaret are unavoidable, the main difference being that Palmer takes the implications at the end of that show to their tragic conclusion.)
The carefree twenties were suddenly twisted into the Fascist thirties. Werner sees his friends beaten up by Hitler’s thugs and carted away, never to be seen again, under the auspices of the new Chief of Police, Kurt Melcher. Werner refuses his frantic parents’ request to return to London. He feels compelled to stay in Berlin to seek love.
Werner’s drag persona is Madame Tourney, an outrageously outré character who comes in handy later on when being a “woman” becomes a matter of survival.
He finds some respite from the social/sexual whirl at the boarding house of Frau Margot Friedrich who becomes a great friend and ally. Her death leaves him bereft and adrift and open to a new relationship with a new lover, Jacob.
Werner is forced to protect his ménage with Jacob by marrying him, as his “wife.” How he gets away with this is fascinating, but it becomes a literal dead end for him and Jacob.
Werner, as Jacob’s widow, has a brief flirtation with a handsome Nazi officer, but his fate is sealed as not only as a homosexual but as a cross-dresser.
Palmer is an unabashed performer, especially considering the intimate proportions of this theater space at HERE. He is unafraid of turning himself inside out—helped by Kathy Price’s colorful costumes—and exposing his emotions, particularly in the horrific, but oddly poetic ending.
David Legg’s melodies aren’t particularly memorable and Palmer’s lyrics are serviceable, speeding the story along with witty details and observations. Palmer sings well enough, making the most of his material.
Palmer gets immense support from Jessa Orr’s beautifully messy set, a cross between a used clothing store and backstage in a vaudeville theater: steamer trunks, hat racks, boxes, chairs and lots of costumes in disarray. Add to this Joe Doran’s exquisitely moody lighting and slides that picture some of the places mentioned in the play.
Director Dorothy Danner probably had a hard time keeping Palmer from devouring the audience, but the results of her guidance is evident in his colorful performance.
Chanteuse is a Palmer production and part of the Sublet Series@HERE.
Chanteuse (through July 30, 2023)
HERE Arts Center, 145 Sixth Avenue (entrance on Dominick Street), in Manhattan.
For tickets, visit http://www.here.org/shows/chanteuse/
Running time: 70 minutes without an intermission