Inside the Astor Café, a pianist plays nostalgic 1930s songs. The café’s crimson walls are decked in Toulouse-Lautrec-reminiscent artwork and photographs of old movie stars.
Suddenly, the lights dim, a spotlight appears and the audience travels back in time to 1937 Milwaukee.
For its third season, Cabaret Milwaukee presents The Clockwork Man, a thriller set in India in 1918. Intermittent are radio ads featuring the Howling Jinglers trio (Haley San Fillippo, Sarah Therese and Kira Walters), singer Dora Diamond and host Richard Howling (Nick Frier).
When Josh B. Bryan, producer, director and co-writer met up with story writer David Law in New Orleans earlier this year, Law had already begun plotting the story. Law typically writes for the screen, but Bryan, who has been with Cabaret Milwaukee for its past three seasons, saw the story’s potential as a radio drama-style live performance.
While references to real historic events, like the 1935 fire at the Astor Hotel, pepper Cabaret Milwaukee’s latest caper, the performance tackles current issues through the lens of a vaudeville-style production. In between her many comic asides, the show’s Miss Milli suggests women joining the workforce in the pre-war era are only taking jobs away from the men that could have them, eerily echoing discussions about declining male labor force participation rates today.
The radio drama itself follows the story of an English doctor who goes abroad to escape debt at home. Dr. Joseph Boggs (Kirk Thompson) encapsulates many sexist, racist views of the time, treating his young wife (Abigail Stein) as a one-dimensional, naïve possession and treating the natives of the region they visit as if they are uncivilized. The contrast between this more direct conveyance of the era’s short-sightedness and Miss Milli’s satirical bits make for an interesting narrative, despite the discreteness of the two acts.
The show also deals with issues of appropriation and false attribution of rituals to cultures for dramatic effect. Josh B. Bryan, producer, director and co-writer, aware of this, noted the importance of treating this matter. “The Clockwork Man” contains what Dr. Bogg’s calls “black magic” practiced by the natives. Bryan brought up the issue in the context of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Because of the misrepresentation of Indian people in the script, the North Indian government denied the filmmakers permission to film in their country. Bryan said that after having conversations with individuals of Indian ethnicity, Cabaret Milwaukee sought to create a nuanced story that did not falsely attribute this “black magic” to a particular group. A live sitar performance from musician Thomas Moore accentuate the mood and highlights the group’s attention to the cultural issues at hand.
The show not only tells the story of Dr. Boggs’s visit to India but also pays tribute to the radio shows of the early 1900s. With factual news from the time and ads for products like Spam and Pabst Blue Ribbon it hints at the part that radio shows played in establishing the role of the “sponsor” in American entertainment. The show opens with the director introducing the show and graciously thanking the Astor Hotel and Twisted Path Distillery for their sponsorship. The Howling Jinglers even perform a number advertising for the distillery. The blend of historic and modern-day Milwaukee references effectively takes the audience into a world where few lines are drawn between the drama of radio entertainment, similar to present-day television and Internet, and advertising.
The show also has whimsical, purely enjoyable elements, particularly in the variety bits. A tap-dancing sequence performed by Thom Cauley energizes the second half of the show, and Dora Diamond’s amorous period numbers repeatedly enchant the room. Miss Milli’s reference to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs serves as a gentle reminder of entertainment’s role during the era: to remove its audiences from their pre-war reality. Cabaret Milwaukee’s The Clockwork Man works in very much the same way – taking Milwaukee audiences to a time eerily like their own, but with enough period aesthetics and drama to allow them to escape, for an hour, from the 21st century.
This performance served as the first in a three-part series first installment in a three-part series. The group will perform the two remaining episodes in months to come. Bryan said that the characters just may find themselves in 1918 Milwaukee, so audiences must stay tuned to see just how they make their way here.