THEATRE ‌ Eyeliner and Attitude 

Cabaret Kiki revives a turn-of-the-century performance style and makes it their own

click to enlarge Cabaret Kiki mash up period style, contemporary musicality, and scads of attitude
  • Cabaret Kiki mash up period style, contemporary musicality, and scads of attitude

Cabaret Kiki
Thurs. Aug. 24, 8 p.m.
Theatre 99
280 Meeting St., 853-6687

Technically, the art of cabaret doesn't require much: a nightclub, bar, or restaurant, a stage, some rudimentary theatrical lighting, a few tables and scattered seats, and a bar — the bar is perhaps more necessary than anything else. It also calls for a handful of performers who are comfortable with same. What cabaret, a mashup genre of music theatre that dates to late 19th-century Europe, lacks in refinement it more than makes up for in eyeliner and attitude. You could do cabaret without the physical trappings, on a classy stage in a high-end theatre. But you couldn't do cabaret without the attitude.

"The thing that defined cabaret was that it was always relevent to its time," says Evan Bivins. "The artists were like the punk rockers of their time: broke, starving in the streets, poets living in the slum, very avant garde. And this all had a twisted sort of appeal to the elite class, it became sexy to them, and the cabaret artists took advantage of that."

Bivins, formerly of pop-folk rockers Jump, is artistic director of Cabaret Kiki, which in just a half-dozen performances in Charleston this year has caught a kind of slow fire. Intensely original, wildly unpredictable, and like nothing else in town, Cabaret Kiki has attitude to burn. It's the collaborative project of some two dozen local performing artists, several of whom are among the area's best-known musical names. Percussionist Bivins (his Kiki stage name is "Kurt Nihilist") is one of two members of Jump in the period outfit, along with his brother Matt, who emcees the ripsnorting goulash of music, dance, comedic sketches, shadow puppetry, film, and improvisation as "Jonny Panick." There's ubiquitous vocalist and professional firecracker Cary Ann Hearst (as "Caramella Guillotine"), local strummer Bill Carson ("The Sleeper"), New Music Collective multi-instrumentalist Nathan Koci (a.k.a. "Klaus Narkoleptik") on piano, accordion, and trumpet, and the Borrowed Angels' Ash Hopkins ("Baron Von Climacus") on standup bass and occasional, distracted percussion.

The lineup's filled out by shadow puppeteer Geoff Cormier and a passel of dancers, and almost every artist is called upon to act, sing, and even improvise at various points during a show. Cabaret Kiki's buckled shoes clearly stand in the historic roots of the form: the artists all perform in heavy makeup and period attire, and the musical accompaniment has a spare, urgent sound reminiscent of swing revival bands like Squirrel Nut Zippers that's at once bawdy, vampish, and rhythmic. But Kiki's head is very much in the here and now. Sketch bits reference game shows, Young MC lyrics, and dance moves like "the homophobe, the robot, the mashed potato, the lambada, the safety dance, the Mt. Pleasant soccer mom, the cock block, and the Gibson — formerly known as the Archie Bunker." Some elements, though, transcend periods. Kiki's show, like those of 100 years ago, misses no chance to tweak the establishment. Sketches and song lyrics are riddled with ribald references and eyebrow-raising innuendo, and, Bivins explains, like the earliest cabarets, Kiki makes itself relevant by staying current.

"When people hear the word 'cabaret,' they often think about the music from the musical Cabaret," Biven says. "The songs from that musical are amazing, but it's a music-theatre stylized version of cabaret music. We are definitely not musical theatre"

Bivins and company create entirely new, original material for each successive production. "Seven Ways," for example, is a song Bivins wrote for this week's show at Theatre 99. In it, Hearst sings a deliciously sinful enumeration of breaking every venal sin for the sake of her man, in a vaudevillian swing style set to brushy snare work, muted horn, and a banjo.

It's so hard to be a good girl, when I'm underneath your spell.

And the seven ways I love you are the seven ways to hell.

One is for vanity, for what's a girl to do?

You test the limits of my sanity, I just do what I do to look good for you.

(*To stream an MP3 of "Seven Ways," click here.)

"What we're doing is a far cry from cabaret of the turn of the century. But the spirit of Cabaret Kiki is paying homage to that era," Bivins says. "The show that we have right now is about that very big period."

It's surely not about big money. There are often more than 20 people involved in each Kiki production. With all but one show to date happening at Theatre 99, which seats fewer than 140, and countless hours of writing and rehearsal going into each one-off production, the group's obviously more of an outlet for creativity than a revenue machine.

"It's a way for all of us to express ourselves in ways we wouldn't otherwise have, Biven acknowledges. "Musicians, jazz players, shadow puppetry, ballet dancers, actors — all these people working creatively together is a pretty amazing thing.

"We're going to own cabaret," he smiles. "It's not going to own us."

Listen to "Seven Ways" from Cabaret Kiki (clicking will stream the MP3 file from your default media player)


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