In Cabaret We Trust is a carnival of artistic talent from across a variety of media, even inviting the audience to participate. TBD Immersive earns its name by opening up a tremendous set spanning indoors, outdoors, and two floors, filled with fire, art, burlesque, and intrigue. If you don’t mind another Trump play, you’ll find a lot to love.
Set in a dystopic 2020s, In Cabaret We Trust brings its audience to the Resistance Cabaret, the last refuge of liberals and former resistance fighters following the conservative takeover of the Republic and bloody revocation of DC’s home rule. The ruthless Senator Johnson has come to review and ultimately crack down on the cabaret, but the once-shattered Resistance stirs.
But the story really starts a month and a half before the show’s opening night, when artistic director Strother Gaines heard back about his application to CulturalDC’s new Space4: Performing Arts program. CulturalDC has a 19-year history of creating artspaces and has now partnered with the Blind Whino SW Arts Club and Dupont Underground to provide affordable venues (as well as mentoring and professional development) for performing arts. They offered Gaines the Blind Whino, if the show could be mounted in just 43 days.
In Cabaret We Trust was probably planned as a gorgeous and ambitious show. Making it happen in so little time is an amazing achievement, and its designers make the most of its remarkable venue. The 15,000+ square feet of space is fully stocked with artwork, three bars, and a huge cast. Directors Gaines and Dana Malone, with make-up design by Joy Johnson, keep the cast distinct and expressive – all in service of a rich and fascinating world.
But they did not do it alone; the credits for this production go on and on. For starters, visual artists Nando Alvarez, John Detrich, Emmett Grosland, Herrin Hopper, and Hope Sorenson all provide artwork for the Blind Whino gallery that remains on display during the show. Sorenson’s work is even set within the universe of the show, with pro-Republic propaganda and Resistance defacement, creating a deeper immersion as you wonder what would happen to these artists under this regime.
The sideshow and variety entertainment, coordinated by Atomic Doll Productions as part of the eponymous cabaret, runs throughout the night with performances that are so dazzling you might feel bad for not just watching the main stage all night. Meanwhile, nimble acrobats straddle the bars downstairs and the stairs up to the cabaret, seamlessly blending seduction and intimidation.
Big on intimidation, the fire troupe Peculiarity Productions perform outdoors as a pre-show and periodically throughout the night. Their pseudo-fascist post-apocalyptic get-up and bright flames put an edge on the conflict that simmers indoors.
And right next to the more permanent visual art in the Blind Whino’s gallery, Super Art Fight alums Alex Kazanas, Colleen Parker, and Greg Benge do live chalk art for each performance, freestyling on the themes of the show and giving audience members more to talk about, when they’re not encouraging audience members to grab a piece of chalk and join in.
With all these different art forms at play serving one central narrative, the show could stop there and still be an awesome display of DC’s diverse and thrilling art scene. But what drew me to the show was TBD Immersive’s namesake, the promise of immersive theatre.
There’s no sitting in front of a proscenium and being spoon-fed theatre; immersive theatre makes you hunt for your meal.
In Cabaret We Trust is a different experience every night. Here’s an idea of what you might see.
There’s almost always something to see in every corner of the Blind Whino. Malone directs the “fabric cast”, a small army of improvisers who are ready to have fully improvised, in-character scenes with each other or audience members. It’s effortless to get wrapped up in a conversation with the regretful barfly (Annetta Sawyer) or get a reading from Mother Whispers (Beth Lyons) that will never happen the same way for anyone else.
All the while, Gaines’s “core cast” of characters race around the set, pushing the plot forward while looping in audience members whenever possible. The whole cast’s commitment sells the world; at times you can stumble upon a scene in progress without an audience, performed just in case you happened to walk in!
In Cabaret We Trust
closes September 29, 2017
Details and tickets
That extends to some of the other performers, including the chalk and fire artists. Peculiarity Productions has the most astounding scene I discovered, utilizing ritual and call-and-response to turn the audience into participants. Then, through closed eyes, I saw white as they brought flames so close to my face that my skin baked, if only just for a moment. That intense sensory experience was a highlight not only of my show, but of my year.
Some participatory elements sputter, unable to live up to TBA Immersive’s ambitions. The show aims to have audience members pick a side between the Republic and the Resistance, but that narrative is extremely basic. Senator Johnson (Marissa Goodstone) is a barefaced Trump stand-in, going so far as to chastise journalists with “Very dishonest media. Very sad!” or boast she could “kill a man in Dupont Circle” and get away with it. While the cabaret is grimy at times, the Republic is an undeniable villain, at least for your average DC theatre audience.
Additionally, the ways to actively support the Resistance often seem hollow. The core cast have quick missions for audience members (e.g., give this message to so & so), and there’s a scavenger hunt to find pieces of a cypher. Both at times felt futile when cast members were uninformed about the mysteries they were supposedly in on.
The plot continues mostly unaffected by audience interaction, up to and including a downer ending with only an almost superficial choice. Fans of Tellgame Games will find TBD Immersive’s illusory narrative control all too familiar. Veterans of murder mystery parties or other LARPS should keep in mind, “It’s still only theatre.”
While the secretly very mundane story and the under-delivered interactivity are disappointing, In Cabaret We Trust still has so much going on and made it all happen in so little time that it’s impossible not be impressed. There’s something for everyone. You can sit in front of the cabaret or meander through the gallery and still get an impressive show. Or you can chase down the enemies of the Resistance and end up having flame-swallowers belch fire right over your head. In that at least, the choice is yours.
In Cabaret We Trust. Artistic direction and created by Strother Gaines. Improvisation direction by Dana Malone. Written by Jenny Splitter and Jessica Bylander. Performed by Catherine Deadman, Chaseedaw Giles, Matthew Gibeson, Marissa Goodstone, D Scott Graham, Amanda Haddock, Katie Maconaughey, Zoe Walpole, Melanie Boyer, Kathleen Burnard, Darnell Eaton, Andrew Dominic, Filicicchia, Allison Frisch, Emily Gilson, Molly Graham, Maura Claire Harford, Alex Kazanas, Kaitlin Kemp, Beth Lyons, Colleen Parker, Annetta Sawyer, Ray Simeon, Dakota Schuck, Heather Marie Vitale, Lauren Hanyock, Samantha Kacos, Shanna Lim, Erin Muessig, Eva Mystique, Alyssum Pohl (More performers to be added and daily cast subject to change). Circus and flow art by Peculiarity Productions (Fire Troupe). Sideshow & variety entertainment by Atomic Doll Productions. Lighting design by James Morrison of Artist Concept Group. Movement coordination by Zana Gankhuyag. Masks by Tara Cariaso. Makeup art and design by Joy Johnson. Visual art by Nando Alvarez, John Detrich, Emmett Grosland, Herrin Hopper, Hope Sorenson. Produced by Jenny Splitter, Jessica Bylander, and Dana Malone of TBD Immersive. Reviewed by Marshall Bradshaw.