BIG BANG FOR YOUR BAMBI BUCK (a reflection on Bambif*cker/Kaffeehaus)
Upon first entering the space at the Brick Theater, where Bambif*cker/Kaffeehaus was recently presented by Little Lord (the show ran between March 5-21st, so if you didn’t catch it you’ll have to trust me) you will encounter a mustached waiter who will hand you a menu. On this menu, you will be presented with a deluge of ‘delicacies’ upon which you are free to spend the Bambi Bucks™ that have been issued to you by the box office moments earlier as you confirmed your reservation. It’s advisable, actually, to read the menu in its entirety, as it also contains some rather vital information that will help you parse the show that follows – but more on that a bit later. Okay, so the menu includes: Maxwell House (formerly General Foods) International Coffees, Alpine Spiced Apple Cider, Fruit Rollups, Slim Jims, Little Debbies Swiss Rolls, Rice Krispie Treats, Goldfish, Froot Loops, Austin and Lance Cracker Sandwiches, assorted flavors of Pop Tarts, and “Instant Lunch” Chicken Noodle soup, all ranging in price between one and three of the aforementioned Bambi-themed currency. (Complete list of delicacies can be found here.) I had the Alpine Spiced Apple Cider and gladly accepted gladly accepted an offer from one of the other waiters to infuse it with whipped cream from a can (she referred to it by what I suspect was its German name, or perhaps just something made-up that sounded German).
This array of junky and nonsensical offerings can be matched and paired in many ways, and you’re only given a limited amount of bucks (i.e., you can’t have it all – although you are allowed the opportunity to purchase more Bambi Bucks™ to spend; at the performance I attended, at least one audience member was motivated to ‘experience the full experience’ and piled his plate so high that he complained of an upset tummy afterwards, having only finished perhaps fifty percent of what he had purchased. ‘It was the Capri Sun that did it,’ he lamented).
The show that follows may then be viewed of as sort of a philosophical spread, prepared for the mind instead of the stomach, and composed of a sampling of the following authorial sources (and I refer to the program for this listing, as I certainly wouldn’t have recognized many of them): Felix Salten/Siegmund Salzmann, Arthur Schnitzier, Theodor Herzl, Sigmund Freud, Peter Altenberg, Stefan Zweig, Adolf Dessauer, Karl Kraus, Oscar Hammerstein II, Fred Ebb, Howard Lindsay, Russel Crouse, Lionel Bart, Edward Kleban, William Shakespeare, Hilary Hope, Paul Reitter, Harold B. Segel, Jeffrey M. and Camilla Jones, and Fraulein Elliott.
The key content-by-volume ingredient here is the Austrian Jewish writer Felix Salten, appropriately listed first. Salten wrote the original Bambi story, titled Bambi: A Life in the Woods, which was published in 1923 and subsequently banned by Hitler as a Jewish allegory. He is also believed to be the author of The Memoirs of Josefine Matzenbacher – The Life Story of a Viennese Whore, as Told by Herself, published anonymously in 1906, which was not banned by Hitler but was placed on the ‘list of youth-endangering media’ in 1969 after two criminal courts declared the pornographic contents of the book to be obscene. This background is provided to the audience only via a note included on the back of the (aforementioned and detailed at great length) menu issued pre-show. I suspect my experience of the performance may have been vastly more confused had I not have gotten this dramaturgical hint of things to come, as the performance itself makes no effort to ‘explain’ this correlation in any way, instead opting to mash the two works together in an aggressively hilarious and occasionally disgusting way. (Think of putting all the pre-show snacks in a blender on high, then serving.)
It’s a brave approach to material that has real consequence. If Salten’s Bambi is to be viewed as a Jewish allegory of the time, suddenly passages and references that might have gone unnoticed begin to take on a much more sinister tone. For example, the meadow (where Bambi is forbidden to go alone but brazenly explores anyway) begins to take on new meaning – it hints at the fear of appearing out in the open. Through this lens, the first line of the book transforms from expositional statement to one of danger and foreshadowing (“He came into the world in the middle of a thicket, in one of those little, hidden forest glades which seem to be entirely open, but are really screened in on all sides.”) Our Bambi (played with frenzy and purpose by Joshua William Gelb) emerges from the thicket as a man dressed in white briefs and wearing high heels on both hands and feet. He is mustached and wears eye liner. He is simultaneously Bambi, Felix Salten, and Josefine Matzenbacher (the whore), and he is staggering under the weight. The rest of the totally-on-board cast members (Alex Birnie, Dominic Finocchiaro, Elizabeth Barrett Groth, Polly Lee, Michael Levinton, Laura von Holt, and an only-on-video Anne Gridley) are also clad in white briefs and mustached. They help out by taking on some of Josefine’s text (often murmured into microphones while underscoring physical action), occasionally embodying dancing pornographic bunnies, and providing the wait staff of the Viennese cafe where Salten probably spent most of his time creating this material.
This ‘cafe’ space, referred to by the title of the piece (‘Kaffeehaus’), becomes both meadow and thicket – a place to be ‘out in the open’ but simultaneously be safely covered up. There are many other elements that emerge from this manic collage, including the occasional appearance of Freud, who attends session with Bambi over the death of his mother and fear of his father. The show establishes and maintains an aggressive physicality; a trampoline appears early on, upon which Bambi madly thrashes (“I’m wild!” he screams, and then keeps bouncing for quite awhile while the other cast members make weird bunny noises and reveal their ‘vaginas’ to the audience. At least I think that’s what was happening during that part, many images cascade through the memory). There are various contemporary flourishes and interruptions; the co-playwright and director Michael Levinton, who also plays Bambi’s father and Freud, interrupts the action at one point to ask Gelb (as the actor) if he’d like to get a drink after the show. Gelb’s response is a slightly annoyed, “Yes?!”
The end result is probably best understood by returning to the thematic presentation and selection of pre-show snacks. We’re free to sample and munch on whatever we want through-out, but they will be taking those tv tables away so be careful. The tootsie rolls may not be for everyone, but you’re invited to take up to five for your Bambi Buck™. If you’re confused by the giant rabbit, don’t worry, something else is coming up very soon. If you try to eat it all, there may be digestive consequence. How much mental and physical currency you expend is ultimately left up to you, but you’re pretty much guaranteed to experience something that turns out to be a lot more complex, fun, and scary than you might have anticipated coming in. More coffee, anyone?