Dark Cabaret (photo: Patric Carver)
Fifteen years ago, Paul Nathan’s parents made a request. They wanted to see their son perform. Most performers might indulge their parents by sending them a recording of a previous performance or inviting them to some already scheduled event. However, Paul Nathan is not most performers. He instead decided to create his own cabaret affair to delight dear old mom and dad. Perhaps that is why there is such a strong familial feeling to Nathan’s Dark Kabaret show today.
It doesn’t hurt that about half of the audience at the Great Star Theater that night appeared to, in fact, be members of Nathan’s friends and family network. A well-dressed bunch, most appeared to be sporting outfits that would fit right into the context of the show. One usher, a retiree from Antioch whose black feathered cap was illuminated eerily by the candle she held, told me that she’d been a fan of Nathan’s since she first saw him as a street performer out on the wharf. “Oh, you’re in for a real treat,” she beamed, “I come to every show. I just love it. It’s exactly what it says — it’s cabaret, it’s dark. It’s fantastic!”
Indeed, it did prove to be a fantastic show. The house band was led by Eric McFadden, whose bluesy voice evokes a young Leon Redbone with a dollop of Larry Graham. Though his bio says he grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I can’t believe that he isn’t a product of the Louisiana swamp music scene. Slithering, coy, and murky, McFadden’s vampiric voice weighed down the trilling finger-picking of his guitar to create a dreamy balance. The old-world accordion playing, simple bass and drums of the rest of the band outfitted a sound that wasn’t quite Old French or zydeco, but not far from it. “Lyrics like, “There’s a hole, deep and cold, in my soul,” were belted out with a chilling spirit that transported me to the misty, calling mausoleums of New Orleans. Simply, Nathan could not have conjured a better music act to accompany his show. I would go see this show again just to hear the authentic, McFadden and company.
Another highlight from the evening included performance artist Eden Berlin, who mixed imagery and dance. Coming all the way from Germany to entertain the crowd, Berlin made sure it was worth it. She had two acts that evening. Her first act was an intense exercise in light and shadow play. Though it was intriguing, the second act was the real showstopper. Appearing draped in robes and a Virgin Mary-esque crown, Berlin entered the stage with altar-like candles surrounding her on the floor. Images of Berlin were projected on the screen behind her. The audience collectively sucked in a breath as the projected Berlin was martyred by a man in BDSM attire, puncturing two silver skewers through Berlin’s perfect alabaster forehead. With the spikes obscuring her eyes, projected Berlin gave a visual cue to her live counterpart to undress. Casting her robe aside, Berlin appears in a fairly traditional burlesque dancer costume with two exceptions: she still had the weighty crown on her head, and her thighs met at a sequined sacred heart of Jesus that barely covered her most intimate areas. One by one, Berlin picked up the altar candles and poured them on her flesh, leaving sweeping tracks of red wax intertwined on her body. Frankly, I haven’t seen performance art this alluring since Carolee Schneemann plucked her interior scroll from her nether regions in the name of feminism. Her work left me spellbound.
The thing that makes Nathan’s show work so well, though, is that is truly is a cabaret. People in the audience slow danced in the aisles, there was laughter, there was shock, there was an amazing band. You could not expect more from a show like this. Nathan is a gracious host who appears to love the other performers as much as he loves performing himself. There really is a family element that seems uncommon in shows of this nature today. Plenty of acts during the night, like the cabaret singers who did a chair act while belting out Peggy Lee‘s “Fever,” were so good because they were so true to the spirit of entertainment for entertainment’s sake. Near the end of the show, juggler Frank Olivier brought the house to tears of laughter in during his manic performance as a bumbling unicyclist — an act that could have easily bored if not for Olivier’s steady flow of charisma and charm. To end it all, magician Paul Dabek performed shadow puppetry that was simply enthralling.
I have to say that I am certainly glad that Nathan’s parents jumpstarted the creation of this event so long ago. Proof that old world entertainment can still exist without being antiquated, Paul Nathan’s Dark Kabaret is a delight that is not to be missed. Future shows this year are November 25 and 26 at the Great Star Theater.