If you are going to Reuben Kaye’s self-titled show just to fill the main slot in your cosmopolitan night out, looking for comfortable entertainment, you may be in for a shock. While the elements may be familiar – Kaye as a magnificent Master of Ceremonies, a supporting band consisting of grand piano, drums, and a moment of double bass, even the cabaret genre itself – Reuben Kaye turns the familiar unfamiliar. At the least the show undermines heteronormativity and at the most completely subverts the status quo.
Early into the show he conducts a survey of his audience calling first on heterosexual women, then on LGBTQI+, receiving a thunderous response, before finally addressing the “straight man in the room”. Kaye manages at once to flip the social hierarchy, turn their uncomfortableness into an analogy for social oppression, and educate on the topic of consent – all while maintaining wit and charm and sense of ungrudging respect. I was in awe. I have not seen any performer cover this much ground before, let alone in the space of minutes.
Kaye doesn’t wait for the stragglers in the audience, immediately moving on to cast considerable shade on the venue, including but not limited to ‘the area they generously call backstage’ and his entrance for the finale which apparently involved exiting a staff cupboard with an ice-cream freezer in it. Even the stucco which adorns most surfaces in the Civic takes a ribbing. This engagement with the physical stage space serves to keep the show fresh from previous performances as Kaye, a talented improviser, manages to root much of his comedy in the Civic itself.
Kaye is also in constant rapport with both his band and the tech team, not for a moment are we allowed to suspend our disbelief. Whether it is asking for his spotlights or complimenting his drummer’s skills, Kaye is constantly reminding his audience of the constructed nature of everything before us. This metatheatrical bent not only serves as excellent fodder for comedy but creates the space to question other constructions such as gender. At one point Kaye stops singing to comment ‘why shouldn’t I have a functioning womb in my own song?’
And while we are talking of gender – can every man take a leaf out of Kaye’s book and invest in some better fashion? Early on he references some advice his mother gave him about the importance of being a ‘sharp dressed man’ and clearly Kaye has taken this to heart. The first outfit (of many) is a ¾ length superbly tailored crimson red jacket with matching bedazzled shawl lapels paired with a crisp white shirt, black dress pants, and wide black satin cummerbund. Kaye cuts a fantastic figure. Even the microphone in his hand has been dressed up for the occasion with a metre-long black tassel like a pony’s tail sprouting from the base of the microphone.
Not only was the show visually delicious but Kaye taps into the rich fabric of western art and culture. He works in references to Michelangelo, Bernini, the ballet Manon, Kafka (he’s Jew-ish), Albert Camus, an extended bit on Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, and a nod to Bob Fosse (director of the 1972 film Cabaret from which most of this audience would be taking their knowledge of the form.)
Kaye’s true skill lies in his ability to embed moments of profundity in amongst the hilarity taking what could have merely been sequinned stand-up comedy and reaching for the essence of cabaret. Kaye provides his audience blistering commentary upon topics which are still considered by the majority to be ‘underground’ or unpalatable, fully utilising the mediums of comedy, spectacle, song, and story.
So, is cabaret outmoded? In excellent form Kaye asks this question himself and answers it for me. ‘No!’ he cries as he runs between the tables of wine-drunk audience, ‘Because cabaret is an equalizer!!!!’ While this may have been true of cabaret past, in Kaye’s hands cabaret is more than an equalizer, it is a vision of a new world order.
I have never been told by a performer what to write in a review before but Kaye informs the audience at one point that ‘this is parody, which means this is satire, and so this is art, which is entirely subjective, and can’t be criticised’ and so criticise I cannot.
The Auckland Live Cabaret Season presents cabaret sensation Reuben Kaye.
14th and 16th of June 2019, The Wintergarden, The Civic.