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The American Repertory Theatre production of John Moran's new multi-media the-artical creation The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a unique and disorienting event. Theatergoers find themselves literally surrounded by a strange, stylized world full of colorful, clownish costumes, creepy music and sound effects and a good measure of farcical blood and gore. Drawing upon several esoteric influences, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a lushly imagined theatrical piece, but its seventy minutes of bewildering entertainment is a mostly unpleasant experience with little lasting impact on the audience.
Some background on the show's sources helps explain its weirdness. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is based on a silent 1920 German Expressionist film of the same name about a mysterious hypnotist who enters a German town and causes all manner of horror and havoc. The film, in turn, draws upon the work of a curious theater of the time based in Paris called the Grand Guignol. For over six decades, the Guignol produced plays resembling a grotesque puppet show, but with live actors. Real-life crime and bawdiness were brought to the stage for elite audiences craving campy entertainment full of fake blood and unthinkable acts of horror.
Moran's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari seeks to unify these two influences in one wild story. Penny Price (Phoebe Jonas) is the owner of a penny arcade which has been struggling financially ever since her lover died years ago. At the height of her despair, Caligari (Alvin Epstein) and his dubious troupe blast into town, demanding to use the arcade as a setting for their show. Caligari tricks many of the townspeople into participating in his performance, and they all realize too late that they will not make it through Caligari's twisted and absurd variety act alive.
The American Repertory Theatre is calling the work an "opera" of sorts, a somewhat misleading description. While the soundtrack is often remarkably detailed and well-orches-trated, it by no means approaches melody or beauty, concepts that are foreign to the play and its precursors. Every line of dialogue, every creak, stomp, shout and ominous musical note is pre-recorded and meticulously planned. The actors mouth their lines as the words resonate throughout the theater, creating a mood that reinforces the impact of the show's other-worldly, puppet-like realm.
Re-created bits of the silent film featuring the actors from the A.R.T. production, as well as other projections, are used throughout the show. Most of the projections are meant to provide commentary on the action of the play. In one scene, for example, a dollar sign is projected on the curtain as Penny accepts Caligari's payment for the arcade. More often, the projections just flash frantically. When Mr. Twiddle (Scott Ripley), the banker who agrees to perform in Caligari's variety show, is sentenced to death in one of the skits, a yellow swirl appears on the curtain along with words of despair and demonic laughter.
These multimedia combinations work in the bizarre context of the show, but they are sometimes used gratuitously. Overall, the combination of live-action with other images forms a production that straddles old and new, creating a mixture that is too hard to justify and overly self-conscious.
The actors do their part, pretending to speak their lines and offering appropriately comedic or horrific facial expressions, but ultimately they are only playing caricatures. The costumes are brightly colored and straight out of a carnival, making the mock terror of Caligari's Grand Guignol play seem ridiculously stylized.
Everything about the production design hints that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari does not seek the audience to make any deep emotional investment in the story or its characters. Instead, the production jars the theatergoer into a peculiar world, encouraging reflection on the many layers of theater and the violent and lewd tendencies of society.
It does not matter whether or not audience members are familiar with the silent film or the tradition of the Grand Guignol, because the production never explains why it bothers to resurrect these influences. There is some thing to be said for paying attention to pieces of theatrical history that many historians would like to sweep under the rug, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari exhibits postmodern tendencies by creating a Guignol play-within-a-play. But while the production has its own modernized aesthetic, it remains essentially a fragment of the past. Even with all its technical wizardry, this production doesn't add nearly enough contemporary insight to offer anything more than a colorful and inexplicable excursion to a place few will want to go.
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