“Let your joy be an act of resistance!” proclaims the woman who has seized the stage underneath Dupont Circle. She’s wearing a top hat, winged liner, and a stylish frock coat. A lineup of cabaret performers waits just offstage, ready to entertain us – the audience, but also the Resistance. We are here to watch, and, the woman has told us, join the cause. Nervous excitement ripples through us. It’s cold here in the underground, and we button up our coats as we sip wine from plastic cups.
Then the show begins. It’s jumpy and sexy and dangerous, and it doesn’t tell an entirely coherent story, but what kind of cabaret does? Cabaret Rising showcases both the best and most annoying parts of immersive theater. It’s worth seeing for anyone who enjoys experimental, hands-on theater and is willing to forgive a few confusing plot threads.
The name of the woman in the top hat is Madame Martine (Amanda Haddock), and she’s the ringleader of Cabaret Rising, an immersive theater experience by TBD Immersive mounted in the Dupont Underground. Like other immersive shows, the action of Cabaret Rising doesn’t unfold on a single stage. Instead, the show’s characters walk the shadows of the Underground, which has become the base of the Resistance in a 1984-style dystopia. A corrupt government has sealed D.C.’s borders and subjected the arts to censorship, and the cabaret is one of the only bright sparks left in the city.
But even the cabaret isn’t safe from intruders, it turns out. As the night progresses, the fighters and performers of the Underground – plus the businesspeople there to take advantage of them – fracture into squabbling subgroups. It’s up to audience members to decide who’s right, who’s wrong, and who’s just there for a thrill. Meanwhile, on the stage tucked into a corner of the Underground, performers sing, contort themselves, perform burlesque routines, and juggle.
The show comes close to sensory overload in the best way, which is thanks to its technical elements. Environment designer Will Lowry takes advantage of the gritty, spooky Underground by littering the space with spray-painted signs, bare-bones stalls where the Underground’s residents peddle scraps, and plywood platforms that rumble down the exposed section of old metro track. It’s a post-apocalyptic Wonderland that calls to mind video games like Fallout and Bioshock. And, like the best video games, the set pulls you into another world you can see, hear, and touch. For three hours, I forgot that the D.C. of 2018 was just meters above my head. Instead, I had the great luck of meeting the Resistance leaders in 2028.
Deborah Lash’s stellar costumes add to that illusion. The performers are decked out in their finest retro-trash chic. Dakota Schuck’s dumpster-diving pawnbroker sports a scruffy beard and a brown leather duster, while Alexander Burnett’s cabaret queen glitters in rhinestones, faux fur, and a pink wig. The characters’ cobbled-together look is just the kind of dirty, pretty improvisation that a group of thespians seeking political asylum would wear.
The storyline often takes a backseat to the aesthetic in immersive theater shows, and that’s the case here. Immersive show devisers have a tough task: they must give the audience the illusion of freedom while also ensuring that each audience member finds enough narrative nuggets to make sense of the chaos. The burden of walking that tightrope usually falls on the shoulders of the performers, who have to be prepared for any situation an adventurous – or overly shy – audience member might create.
Many of Cabaret Rising’s performers are up to the job. I had a long talk with Eduardo (Erick Acuna), CEO of a shady corporation whose invitation to the Underground upset the most loyal Resistance fighters. Acuna handled every question I threw at him and never broke character. Dr. Lark (Leslie Olabisi) made me stammer with actual embarrassment if I asked if she had once been a doctor. (“Was a doctor?” she said, spearing me with a withering look. “I am a doctor.”) And a chance encounter with a ghost was so emotionally impactful that I felt like she and I were the only ones in the Underground for a moment.
However, the improvisation between audience and performers sometimes fell flat, and I knew I was watching an awkwardly-scripted moment rather than a real conflict. I missed some key plot details that left me confused when the show hit its violent climax. A friend found a comic explaining some of the show’s context halfway through the performance, but it was too dark to see the illustrations.
In the end, the climax felt empty because I hardly knew some of the characters that had taken over the Cabaret’s stage. Certain plot arcs seemed to vanish rather than get any kind of ending, and the final salvo of action was too neat to satisfy. That was a shame since I’d developed emotional connections to some of the characters. I cared about what happened to them – but I never found out.
Still, I didn’t regret a single minute of the three hours I spent running around the Dupont Underground. The final reason for that enjoyment: the cabaret performers themselves. Although Cabaret Rising wasn’t very good at balancing the cabaret acts with the underlying action, the performers knocked each of their acts out of the park. Bearcat Betty and Eva Mystique danced incredible burlesque routines, Mab Just Mab excelled with raunchy puppetry, and Chaseedaw Giles drew on the crowd’s tension as she rapped.
If you’re a fan of cabaret acts, immersive or situational theater, or even video games, don’t miss Cabaret Rising. After all, how many shows let you chat up cast members, run after ghosts, and watch local burlesque acts – all at the same time?
Cabaret Rising plays through March 4th, 2018 at Dupont Underground, 19 Dupont Circle NW, in Washington, DC. Tickets can be purchased online.
Running Time: About 3 hours, depending on your time of admission.
Note: If you see Cabaret Rising, wear comfortable shoes and bring a coat. It’s cold and hard to see down there. That adds to the ambiance, but only if you’re properly equipped. Also, there are no restrooms in the space, but there are some across the street at the Dupont Circle Hotel.