What keeps you up at night, little brother? Is it that seemingly random tax audit notice you received in the mail yesterday? Perhaps your spouse has become distant, or else developed a disconcerting interest in someone who is not you. Did your boss forget your name at work yesterday? Or is it that odd-looking fellow – the one with the crumbs in his beard – who seems to be following you around? Or…perhaps the windows have seemed to melt; the streets have turned into crooked paths; and everywhere people are being murdered in your quiet town…
And perhaps it’s all these things, because that’s what makes horror horror: the sudden realization that we, formerly masters of our own universe, are no longer in control at all. That a force, or forces, as old as time itself can, at any time, make a hash of our carefully constructed cause-and-effect, turn our reality into soup, and will do so this very night.
And that’s what made The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari one of the greatest of all horror movies, in the silent era or any other era. It does more than shatter the assumptions of its characters; it invites us to reexamine our own. In seventy minutes of brilliance, Hans Janowitz and Carl Meyer used the tropes of storytelling convention – the grand gesturing of silent-film acting; the German Expressionistic twisty streets, pointed buildings, odd angles and shadows – not simply for themselves, but as important elements of the story they told. Without giving too much away, in Caligari, the medium really is the message.
Our feature on the making of Doctor Caligari
Pointless Theatre’s stage reproduction of the movie – here called only Dr. Caligari – is an act of homage and fealty, although there are some variations I’ll get to in a few minutes. The set (Patty Kalil) reproduces the foreboding spirit of Walter Reimann’s and Walter Röhrig’s design, if not all its expensive detail, and the actors, like the set, are all dressed in black and white. (Frank Labovitz is the costume designer).
The actors are silent; a projection screen hangs above them, and we see written lines of dialogue on what seems to be a 100-year-old film. (Alex Leidy did the media design.) Alfredo Antonini’s original beehive of music is gone, replaced by an equally ominous score; composer Michael Winch plays it onstage with his electric violin, alongside Madeline Waters on cello and Rick Netherton on bass.
Pointless tells the same eerie tale Janowitz and Meyer told ninety-five years ago: Francis (Frank Cevarich), having heard some horrifying tale from another man, promises something even worse. Before he can begin, Jane (Rachel Menyuk), eyes transfixed in a thousand-mile stare, walks by him. “That’s my fiancée,” Francis explains, and subtly the story plants a narrative question in our brain before it goes off in an entirely different direction.
In the small town in which he grew up, his friend Alan (Matthew Sparacino) once persuaded him to go to the fair, where they attend an exhibition being given by Dr. Caligari (Lex Davis, bearing a startling resemblance to the original Caligari, Werner Krauss). Caligari had trouble getting his license from the Town Clerk, but now all seems well.
Caligari exhibits Cesare, who has slept through his twenty-three years on the planet but who will now awake at Caligari’s command and predict the future. Sure enough, the somnambulist’s eyes flutter open. How long will I live? Alan asks, and without hesitating Cesare tells him he will last only until the next dawn.
Then the bad things happen. The Town Clerk is found murdered, and shortly thereafter Alan is fatally stabbed with a long, crooked knife. Francis is certain that Cesare is the murderer, acting at Caligari’s behest. Along with Jane’s father (Zachary Fernebok, wearing a fantastic mask designed by Kyra Corradin), Francis enlists the dim police to beard Caligari in his den. When they discover a Caligarian subterfuge, the chase is on, until it reaches its astonishing – and disastrous – conclusion.
The Pointless stage production is so faithful to the movie that it runs seventy minutes – virtually the same time as the film did. Where the Pointless production varies, it is usually in order to play to the company’s strengths, and to advantage.
Cesare was played by an actor in the film, but here Pointless uses a wonderful puppet (Genna Davidson designed all of the puppets). This full-sized creation looks even sadder and more violated than Conrad Veidt managed to look in the movie; when it opens its sky-blue eyes there is so much resignation there that it looks like a horse about to be put to the plow and then whipped. The point of the movie, of course, was that Caligari had turned Cesare into his puppet; in the Pointless production, the word becomes cloth.
March 5 – April 4
at Flashpoint Gallery
Mead Theatre Lab
916 G Street NW
1 hour, 10 minutes with no intermission
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Puppets also inhabit the police station. Their rhythmic, ridiculous movements encapsulate the ritualistic motions of bureaucrats in any institution, and if your frustration builds along with Francis’ as they bumble through their responses, well, that’s the point, isn’t it? (Director Matt Reckeweg has Caligari standing over the police station as though he was manipulating the puppets, but I do not understand the story to be suggesting that Caligari was controlling the police). When Francis finally manages to get two policemen to accompany him to Caligari’s home, Reckeweg gives us two actors wearing enormous Corradin-designed masks; they move with such comic synchronized grace that they achieve the dancing motion which director Robert Wiene aspired to but did not get in the original movie.
My only problem with the Pointless production – and it’s a significant one – is that I think Cevarich’s gestures are too broad and emphatic. Of course, actors in the silent films used broad gestures, as most of the text was implied. But Francis is the protagonist in his own tale, and so imagines his thoughts and actions to be rational and self-controlled. Cevarich’s gestures, on the other hand, are the most dramatic on the stage, and threaten to give away the ending.
But whether you guess the ending or not, the Pointless production of Doctor Caligari is beautiful and fun, and well worth the seventy minutes traffic of your time.
Doctor Caligari . Derived by Pointless Theatre from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Meyer . Directed by Matt Reckeweg . Featuring Frank Ceevarich, Matthew Sparacino, Rachel Menyuk, Lex Davis (who also served as fight director), Zachary Fernebok, Lee Gerstenhaber, Madeline Key and Scott Whalen . Set and prop design: Patti Kalil . Puppet design: Genna Davidson . Mask design: Kyra Corradin . Costume design: Frank Labovitz . Lighting design: Navi Azeez. Media design: Alex Leidy. Eric Swartz, assisted by Sarah Wilby, was the stage manager. Original music composed by Michael Winch and played him on the electric violin, along with Madeline Waters on cello and Rick Netherton on bass . Produced by Pointless Theatre . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.
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