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Zen Cabaret: A Contemplative Burlesque

nytheatre.com review by Emily Otto
October 7, 2007

Zen Cabaret, while certainly a worthy inclusion in the New York Clown Theatre Festival, defies simple classification as clown theatre. Its oxymoronic subtitle, "a contemplative burlesque," effectively indicates its varied traditions. Part avant-garde music concert, part clown show, part Buddhist philosophy class, Zen Cabaret is at once curious and arresting, energetic and meditative, melancholy and joyful.

Nina Rolle, the creator of Zen Cabaret, is described in the show's production biography as a "hybrid artist—singer, composer, actor, writer, dharma artist, clown—and pioneer in the genre of Sonic Theater." Her multiple talents are displayed marvelously in this production, in which she leads a troupe of six women (dubbed the Rogue Elements) through a series of songs, sketches, and happenings, all requiring tremendous physical and vocal versatility from the performers. Rolle is a fearless performer, not simply because she's brave enough to go to bizarre extremes, but because she has the patience and the confidence to hold an audience in the palm of her hand with a subtle glance or a miniscule action. Even when the performance goes down strange roads (and it does), Rolle is the picture of calm control, helping the audience to trust her as navigator.

Adopting the style of a medicine show, Zen Cabaret intersperses songs and instrumental pieces with monologues and sketches, with occasional breaks for Absurdist Retail Therapy, during which the Rogue Elements hock products such as Permission Granted drops and No-D glasses for a small fee from audience members. It's easy for audiences to become uncomfortable in such an exposed setting, but the performers are both exuberant and gentle in their audience interactions, allowing even the most reticent viewers to get in on the action. When an actor gets a Williamsburg audience to repeatedly sing "Cynicism is easy"—in harmony, no less—you know she's doing something right.

The music in this production is notable not for its virtuosity (although there are clearly some powerful voices hiding within the group), but for its lingering aura. Light, haunting background harmonies appear and disappear without warning, and any prop on stage may become an instrument at some point (a chair, a suitcase, a dollar bill, buckets of change, and an ingenious combination of a rock, paper, and scissors.) Rolle does fine, inventive work with an accordion: in one captivating scene, she begins on stage simply as a woman in a pretty dress. With the help of egregiously applied lipstick, a bell-on-a-pillow hat, and a prolonged bit involving a leg tangled in her accordion strap, she transforms herself into a sad clown singing a childlike tune of an existential dilemma ("I think too much / Therefore I am too much / I probably shouldn't be here now").

Thankfully, Zen Cabaret manages to keep its sense of humor, despite its weighty themes of life, love, money, and the nature of existence. The show was first performed in 2002 in Los Angeles, and has been presented in venue-specific subsequent versions since then. Perhaps because the show keeps changing, it has a loose, improvisational feel. In this version, Rolle's opening monologue explores the idea of space—how little of it we have in New York and our fear of making space, allowing our minds to be uncluttered. The philosophy of the monologue is sound, but the actual performance of it (using cue cards, theoretically for comic effect) feels haphazard; it sticks out in an otherwise polished production.

Perhaps the most exciting quality of Zen Cabaret is how difficult it is to define. Each time I thought I had its genre pinned down, the show would shift gears and move in a new (but equally compelling) direction. By borrowing liberally from traditions high and low, yet maintaining a singular artistic vision, Rolle has created a fascinating and truly unique piece of theatre.