Edinburgh Fringe 2023
It is February 1933, and the last night the Fabulett, a queer Berlin nightclub, is allowed to open its doors before the Nazi order to close all venues that ‘promote immorality’ comes into power. The cabaret’s emcee is Felix, who tells us his story, the last-ever audience of the Fabulett – or maybe not?
When we enter the theatre, the pianist Herr Hans plays some easy jazz. Gossiping, sipping our drinks, and expecting a fun night out, we all sit down in our chairs. There is an old-style wooden bistro three-in-one hat/coat/umbrella stand and a matching barstool on stage. Both are painted white, as is an old trunk that lies on its side on stage.
Suddenly, the auditorium is plunged into darkness. A man dressed in a thick army coat, a tin hat, and a rifle enters the stage. We hear the sound of guns and bombs. The wall behind the soldier bursts into flames. His silhouette is dark against the red of the explosion. The audience’s shock at this unexpected scene is palpable in the room. It is followed by a black screen with white writing: ‘On the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month, the guns fell silent.’ The auditorium is filled with birdsong and the hooting of an owl. A film reel starts rolling. We see bombed-out houses, followed by city life returning; people buying newspapers, sitting in cafes, traveling by tram, performers putting on makeup, dancers kicking their legs in cabarets, advertisements in bright lights tell us about the newest consumer goods. And then the happy mood is crushed by images of the burning of the Reichstag. Piano music starts playing. On stage, a dark cloaked figure, lit from behind, menacingly warns us. He is doom personified, and he will be coming back, again and again. Becoming scarier, more haunting with each entrance, when he counts down the time the Fabulett and with it a tolerant, progressive society, has left before it is closed down.
Lights. Felix stands on stage in a black leather corset and trousers and a crown. He brings us up to date on Weimar and the rise of the Nazis and their restrictive orders. He tells us, ‘Let’s celebrate as if there is no tomorrow, for there is none.’ A thread of gallows humour runs through the whole night. Felix introduces Herr Hans, the pianist, his sidekick, and the butt of his jokes, which receive plenty of laughs from the audience.
Felix, meaning the happy one, turns to us and tells his life’s story, a very unhappy story. He moved to Berlin in 1915, escaping the small minds of a small town. He went to university and met people like him. Queer folk, who lived their own lives. For the first time, he felt at home.
This is not at all like his real home. Felix was never like the other boys. Instead of playing football, he dressed in his mother’s clothes. His parents were lower middle class, Kleinbürger, small burghers with small minds. His father, a bully, who rejected his too effeminate son when he was only eight years old. His mother understanding, but scared for her little queer boy. She gives him a hat, a hat she calls an ‘invisibility hat’. A hat he can wear when he has to hide his true self.
The fun in Berlin ended for Felix in 1916 when he had to go to war. It leaves him traumatized, but he still is the queer little boy of old. Shellshock is a theme that comes back again and again in the show. Reminding the audience that we never see all of a person and we can’t judge a book by its cover. In 1919 civil life has returned to Germany, and so has Felix. Felix is back from the Western Front outwardly unharmed. Demobbed he returns to Berlin, and he starts work at the Fabulett, and this time he wears a sparkly ‘visibility hat’. A letter from his mum asks him to come home for Christmas. Felix is looking forward to seeing his mum, and he buys her a new American invention, the pop-up toaster. Before he can present her with this extravagant gift, he receives a telegram from his father. Mama is dead, and he is not welcome home anymore. Christmas 1919 he celebrates with his new family, the other queer folk at the Fabulett.
We follow his career and his love life. He meets someone, falls in love, but gets lied to, cheated, and used. We know soon that there is more to this love story than we see, and we are right. Far too quickly, the final hour of the Fabulett is over. There are sharp, loud knocks at the door. Lights out.
Michael Trauffer, who plays Felix and created the show, has written much of the music and lyrics himself. However, he cleverly juxtaposes his works with songs from the Weimar Republic by Mischa Spoliansky and Friedrich Holländer, translated either by himself or J. Lawrence. It is a credit to Trauffer’s talent that it is quite hard to tell which songs are from this century and which are from the previous one. The music fits always very well. Ballads and up-beat numbers alternate quite frequently and keep the show interesting, while reprises help to tie the whole story together and focus the mind on what is the essence of the story. Two songs in this show stand out, both by Trauffer himself: Your Cabaret Needs You and Invisible/Visible. The latter becoming a red thread for the show.
Trauffer is a consummate performer. He lives every word he utters and sings. His stage presence is magnetic. Trauffer allows his character Felix to be hurt and to be honest. In a time of increasing toxic masculinity, it is refreshing to see a man presented on stage that is both strong and vulnerable. This is made even stronger by the fact that Trauffer has a well-trained physique and handsome features. There are many nuances in the persona of Felix, which makes the character so engaging and relatable. A solo show is the perfect vehicle for this charismatic performer.
The original collaborator and musical director for this show was Sarah Morrison who helped with additional music and direction. For the Edinburgh Fringe run, the musical direction has been taken over by James Hall, who in the silent role of Herr Hans acts his part with very expressive eyebrows. His playing is fluent and unobtrusive. He never draws the limelight to himself and always supports Trauffer’s character. Without the odd mention of Herr Hans by Felix, it would be very easy to forget Hall is actually on stage with Trauffer. This is exactly what Fabulett 1933 needs and makes it work so well.
The historical context of this show is extremely well researched. While Trauffer mentions many accurate facts, they are very much part of the story. This makes the show didactic, but in no way preachy let alone boring. He uses the alienation effect with great skill to show how easily one can be seduced by the wrong person at the right time. It is a lesson to us all.
The audience certainly went along with every event of Felix’s life. They were shocked, amused, frightened, or thoughtful. This show had people laugh out loud and moved to tears.