With a naughty German accent, the emcee at The Kaufman Kabaret delights in teasing the audience with the Canadian history we could be covering—the Meech Lake Accord, the War of 1812, Quebec separatism—but thankfully are not. Instead, Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch has dug up a far sexier story from our collective past: the legalization of birth control.
Following the story of A R Kaufman, a wealthy boot-manufacturer whose factory employed hundreds of workers living on the edge of despair in the late 1920s and ’30s, the world première of The Kaufman Kabaret is a captivating trip through Canada’s lesser known, but no less important history.
Kaufman (Corben Kushneryk) is concerned about the desperate existence of his workers and decides if they could just have fewer children, their fortunes would turn. He then sets out on a mission to find an effective birth-prevention device and to distribute it to those in need, with the help of willing nurses and doctors. Eventually, his pushing of preventative measures lands one of his nurses, Dorothea Palmer, in jail and a landmark trial follows.
The play flips back and forth between a cabaret-style, with our German-ish host, and the more traditional staging of Kaufman’s journey. Kushneryk relishes his dual roll as impish Master of Ceremonies and the affable Kaufman, transitioning with ease and humour, as well as dealing fairly well with a few hecklers.
There are quite a few standout moments, like when the leaders of various religious communities take the stand at trial simultaneously, creating a cacophony of sanctimonious opinion about the issue. Or when the prosecution argues that a higher standard of living and more effective social policy might help the situation of these workers more than condoms.
However, it would have been nice to return to the “cabaret” moments more frequently—though interesting, some stretches of storytelling were so long, the cabaret seemed all but forgotten. And some moments didn’t carry as well as others—like when Palmer relives her escape from a violent attack—as the drama of the situation is slightly lost in its re-telling.
But these are minor grievances. Funny, thought provoking and, at times, truly chilling, The Kaufman Kabaret is a welcome addition to the Canadian theatre landscape.
Until Sat, Apr 2 (7:30 pm)
Directed by Kathleen Weiss
Timms Centre for the Arts,
$12 – $25