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STAGE WEEK

Arte Johnson, 'Cabaret' Head For Long Beach

May 03, 1987|JANICE ARKATOV

"He's a malevolent, diabolical character," announced Arte Johnson of his emcee's role in "Cabaret" the John Kander/Fred Ebb musical opening Saturday at the Long Beach Civic Light Opera. "And he's symbolic of post-World War I Germany, the decadence of Berlin, the transformation of free-flowing Bohemians into ultimate Nazis.

"I've been a student of Germany for a long time," he added, "collected stamps and artists of the period. So I had a picture of it. And I talked to people who lived in Berlin in the '20s. They said life was a cabaret: It was treated indiscriminately, as if it were irrelevant. The Germans were losers at all levels; they had nothing to live for. We don't have anything in our society to compare it to. And yet you will recognize these people--because this could happen anywhere. The most sensitive and cultured society can turn, become a nest of sickness."

Political perspectives aside, Johnson wanted to stress that this is also a very engaging show: "It's a marvelous entertainment. Wonderful music, fun occurrences."

He also noted that the movie, a 1972 Academy Award-winner starring Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey (who will be repeating his role on the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage starting June 16), "is a completely different thing; comparing the two is like comparing apples and oranges.

"In the play, the homosexuality is underplayed. Also, the songs of the movie have very little to do with this. The movie was done as a movie . You can cut and edit, zoom in or out on someone's face. Onstage, that dimensionality is much more limited. In my mind, though, the play holds up better.

"It's wonderful to have this kind of expiation," he added. "After all, such things (political oppression) are certainly happening today, all around the world. So yes, the play is a social comment: 'It's time to look around, appraise what you're doing.' On the other hand, it isn't a social message but an entertainment. People are in for a night of fun, not a heavy dose of torture."

Weird, weird weird! But fascinating, too, is the premise of Tom Jacobson's "The Glory of Her Sex," which opens this weekend at the West Coast Ensemble (where an annual celebration of one-acts is currently running as well).

"It's the true story of a spy in the court of Louis XVI, named Chevalier d'Eon de Beaumont," explained the playwright. (It was also the subject of David Trainer's "Chevaliere," which played at South Coast Repertory in 1981.) "The unique thing about D'Eon was that he wouldn't commit to either gender. Sometimes he claimed to be a man; sometimes she claimed to be a woman.

"Of course, it threw the whole court into confusion. He told people he'd been raised as a man because his family needed an heir and now it was to his advantage to be a woman. So he spent roughly the first 35 years of his life as a man, the second 35 as a woman."

Jacobson was reading a book on female impersonators when he came across a small paragraph on D'Eon, who is well known in Europe. "The word eonisme , which means transvestite in French, comes from his name," the writer noted. "And really, D'Eon's story has such political relevance today. We think we've come a long way, baby, that someone's gender isn't important. But what's the first question we ask when a baby's born? It is important to us--and D'Eon claims that it shouldn't be. He asks us to expand our middle-of-the-road thinking."

The show's costumes reflect that sensibility: "The men wear tights with codpieces, the women wear overskirts. In both cases, their legs are exposed--it's the unifying factor. Whether D'Eon's (playing) a man or woman, wearing a codpiece, skirt, wig or bodice, that part's the same." As for his true gender, "It's not important to the play," Jacobson demurred. "While D'Eon lived, it wasn't discovered. By the time he died in 1810, there was so much going on with the French Revolution that no one really cared."

Joe Orton is suddenly hot .

This month marks the publication of his autobiography, as well the release of "Prick Up Your Ears," a film chronicling the British writer's life and death. Now Los Angeles is getting two stage versions of Orton's 1967 black comedy, "Loot." The second one is part of the Mark Taper Forum repertory due in July. The first one opens Friday at the Tiffany Theatre.

"Orton's most famous quote is 'People are fundamentally bad, but irresistibly funny,' " offered co-producer Loren Stephens. "That pretty much sums up his attitude. Any establishment is subject to his barbed tongue. 'Loot' is about the corruption of law and the church. It begins after the death of a woman, when an inspector arrives and finds that everyone has their own agenda for the murder. It has lots of sight gags and is a heavy prop show that requires a tremendous amount of choreography. And yet the audience should never feel that that's what it's about--it should play liked greased lightning."

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