Oh, those wacky Russians! That may seem like a contradiction in terms to those of us accustomed to scenes of bleak Soviet life, but wacky aptly describes Theatre Buffo of Leningrad, whose effervescent vaudeville-style show, "Ah, Cabaret! Ah, Cabaret!",is the opening production in the Theatre Project's 20th anniversary season
As novel as Soviet vaudeville may seem on these shores -- which Theatre Buffo is visiting for the first time -- the idea is also fairly novel in the U.S.S.R. Suppressed during the Russian Revolution and virtually eliminated by Stalin, cabaret theater has only recently resurfaced, due in part to the efforts of Theatre Buffo's producer and director, Isaak Shtockbant.
What it most closely resembles, as Theatre Project's artistic director, Philip Arnoult, pointed out in his introduction, is the type of show that forms the basis for the musical "Cabaret." In fact, the title number, "Ah, Cabaret! Ah, Cabaret!", is strikingly similar in form to the opening of the musical, setting the tone for the proceedings and introducing the nine-member company.
And, like the musical, Theatre Buffo also employs a master of ceremonies. But far from the sinister presence portrayed by Joel Grey, this emcee is a cheerful clown, played by Gennady Vetrov. In addition to his clowning, Mr. Vetrov is a multi-talented musician, capable of playing an eclectic range of instruments, often simultaneously. At one point he turns himself into a one-man orchestra -- wearing cymbals on his knees, castanets on his toes and playing Khachaturian's "Saber Dance" on an accordion bedecked with plastic horns, whistles and, oh yes, a plunger.
For that matter, the entire company is accomplished musically. Identical twins named Alexander and Evgeny Anufriev display fast and furious fingering on 12-string guitars. And you realize how international music can be when a pop singer named Aliki Usubiani performs a blues song in French, which she recently recorded in Finland.
But my personal favorite was the unlikely, but thoroughly glasnost, vision of the lovely Elena Spiridonova singing her "favorite capitalist song" -- Janis Joplin's "(Oh, Lord, won't you buy me a) Mercedes Benz."
In terms of sheer silliness, one of the goofiest sights was Yury Galtsev -- who resembles a heavy-set Boy George -- impersonating a recalcitrant washing machine, which not only needed a swift kick to start, but also managed to shred a sock.
As part of Theatre Project's new collaborative affiliation with Towson State University, members of Theatre Buffo will be leading workshops for TSU drama students. But just sitting in the audience at "Ah, Cabaret! Ah, Cabaret!" teaches an important lesson as well -- that the language of laughter is universal.
'Ah, Cabaret! Ah, Cabaret!'
When: Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; matinees Sundays at 3 p.m. Through Sept. 30.
Where: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.