If you’ve ever taken a film history class or are just a movie buff, chances are you’ve seen the 1920 notorious German silent suspense film, The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari.
“It’s not only an important piece for development of European avant-garde, but it’s one of the first movies,” says Matt Reckeweg, co-artistic director of Pointless Theatre. “It was released in 1920 when it was still a very new medium and it comes up a lot when film buffs discuss movies.”
Reckeweg and the theatre’s co-artistic director Patti Kalil had thought about bringing the film to the stage for the past few years, but it remained on the backburner as they developed other projects. That is until the pair wanted to open 2015 with something completely different.
Doctor Caligari is the first piece that the Pointless Theatre has done that they consider ‘dark.’ “Most of the last five years, we have been whimsical and bright and funny,” Reckeweg says. “This was a dive into something that takes away that clutch: we’ve gotten good at being silly and we have challenged ourselves as not to depend on that, but the opposite is trying to create this sort of intense thrilling visual reaction from the audience.”
The thriller tells the story of the mysterious Dr. Caligari and his carnival attraction, Cesare the Somnambulist, who lives in a death-like sleep but obeys every command of his master. After a string of violent murders, a young man named Francis is pushed to the brink of insanity as he seeks to save the life of his fiancée and learn the true identity of Dr. Caligari.
“We nailed down that we wanted to do an adaptation of the film, and that was a big step for us. We thought about doing another impressionist film and we were intrigued by that,” says Reckeweg, who is directing the show. “A lot of how we choose shows is more based on style and not content; usually the story itself becomes secondary to whether or not the style of the piece we are adapting or creating can fit into our mission statement, which is to smash the boundaries between puppetry, theater, dance, music and the arts.”
Reckeweg was introduced to the film back in high school and most of the company (the majority who went to the University of Maryland together) had seen it in a film history class that covered expressionism, so everyone was on board with taking the plunge.
March 5 – April 4
Recommended for 12 and up
at Flashpoint Gallery
Mead Theatre Lab
916 G Street NW
Wednesdays thru Sundays
“We had never worked from a film before, which presented an interesting challenge,” Reckeweg says. “We thought that the styling of the movie was so intriguing and the performance style so exaggerated that it would fit our performance techniques—blurring the line between actor and dancer. We continued on from there.”
A big challenge was in translating the different moments of the film to the stage. “In the film, they switch from environment to environment and each location is a very beautiful, stylized piece,” Reckeweg says. “With us, it was not realistic to have that many locations clearly defined, so we had to find clever ways to suggest that we’ve shifted location without having shifted the entire set.”
Another challenge was in the pacing of the show. Reckeweg wanted to ensure that he evoked the same “edge of your seat” excitement and madness that the film delivered.
“A lot of being able to thrill people or scare people is about suspending the tension and building to some sort of moment that will really build to a climax,” the director says. “It’s not just about focusing on the stage picture of storytelling but the pacing of how those moments are being delivered. It’s been a new, fun challenge for me.”
The original silent movie relied on just a few subtitles so the audience could follow the plot, but the staged version has actors mouthing the words with subtitles suspended above them on a TV monitor.
Quick clip of Doctor Caligari from Pointless Theatre
For anyone who has seen any of Pointless Theatre’s ten previous productions, it’s clear that the company knows how to entertain. “The cast includes most of the same people who were involved in our Sleeping Beauty puppet ballet, and it’s almost the same design team. I see this as very much a continuation of the work we did on that,” Reckeweg says. “Ballet is very different in tone, as Caligari is much darker, but the pieces are structurally similar in the way they tell the story through pantomime, gesture, stage composition and design elements. We were able to apply things to this show that we discovered in Sleeping Beauty, and it’s been a true joy to have the transition from one to another.”