“The Seven Deadly Sins” is at first glance hard to approach. It’s racy, it’s avant-garde, it’s sung in German.
The last play of the season at the Yale Cabaret, Bertoldt Brecht’s “Sins,” directed by Joseph Cermatori DRA ’08, chronicles the sordid, emotional travels of two sisters, both named Anna, through the underworld of nightclub entertainment. The material is right at home in the basement theater of the Cabaret, where the narrow performing space is flanked on either side by cafe tables under hanging lights. The table on the little platform where the sisters start each scene mirrors the tables for the audience, and the show’s action is nightclub entertainment made elegant and meaningful.
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Though the cast is small, consisting only of the two Annas and the chorus of four men, the audience is only slightly larger, making for intimate, physical theater. Anna I (Emily Dorsch DRA ’07) sings straight into the audience with brutal intensity, addressing individual audience members and daring them not to look away. Anna II (Tiffany Stewart DRA ’07), whose dance carries her to the border of the stage, at one point topples into the crowd. The play and the audience are closely knit, making the play effective and compelling.
Part of the loveliness of “Sins” is how elusive it is. It is a parable in song, a little opera, a cabaret act with soul. Spanning seven years in seven cities, the story, sung in German with English supertitles projected on both sides of the narrow theater, takes place, strangely enough, in America. The act is somewhere between nightclub entertainment and art. “Sins” is dark and hard to define, and the use of the German enhances its mysteriousness.
Anna and Anna are two sisters, or perhaps, more eerily, two sides of the same woman. Anna I is a singer, the icily controlling, nearly maniacal “practical girl” who sells her sister’s talent to audiences across America. Anna II, an exquisite and beguiling dancer, is nearly mute save her complacent “ja, Anna” (right, Anna), which is repeated throughout the play. In typical Brechtian style, each character represents an idea and not necessarily an individual. The two Annas shine, however, when they show deeper emotion. The glimpses of pain beneath Anna I’s tyrannical exterior and the desperation revealed as Anna’s cheerful automaton gives way to desperation and sorrow make the play seem more true.
In one of the most absorbing scenes, entitled “Zorn,” or “Wrath,” the two sisters engage in a frenzied dance, a physical expression of rage. For all the sin, lust and anger in their relationship, their intermittent expressions of sisterly love make the characters more human. The austere score, expertly handled by Dan Schlosberg ’10 on piano and Greg Hennigan DRA ’07 on banjo and percussion, along with the operatic German sung by Anna I and the haunting, zombie-like chorus is an essential part of the production.
Brecht and composer Kurt Weill’s collaboration is indeed sinful. It’s dark, moody and sexy, and the dance of Anna II sometimes crosses the line into provocative territory. The story involves more pain than pleasure, and is more often about sorrow than about sin. Each successive scene becomes more of a struggle; as Anna II gains fame and money the situation becomes more desperate, the music harsher and more relentless and the dance gains in intensity, becoming less a cabaret routine more like a dance of death.
At the same time as it is beautiful and startling as entertainment, the piece comments on itself, exposing a dark underworld of theater, reflecting on the pain of selling art for money. The bright lights, hanging from the ceiling and embedded in the floor, are almost too bright, the booms of the bass drum almost too loud for the little theater, drawing attention to the inevitable scrutiny of a cabaret audience. The Annas break the boundaries of the stage and dare their audience to look away. The effect is confrontational, but jarringly beautiful.