This well-done 'Caligari' will give you the creeps

January 21, 1998|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

"Creepy" is the first word that comes to mind to describe Action Theater's latest production. The music is creepy. The lighting is creepy. Even the makeup is creepy.

And that's as it should be, since the production is an original stage adaptation of one of the prototypal horror movies, Robert Wiene's "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari."

This silent 1919 German Expressionist film told the story (screenplay by Carl Meyer and Hans Janowitz) of a mad scientist who used a sleepwalking patient to commit murders. Heightening the terror was a highly stylized production design that emphasized sharp angles and skewed perspectives.

Action Theater's adaptation, written by Robb Bauer and directed by Tony Tsendeas, with mostly black and white sets and costumes by David M. Barber, closely adheres to the look and feel of the movie, right down to the use of projected titles in place of spoken dialogue for much of the piece. The adaptation )) is a logical choice for this theater company and particularly for Bauer, since his set design for the company's 1996 production of Witkiewicz's "The Madman and the Nun" seemed strongly influenced by "Caligari."

There are some departures from the movie. The sleepwalker is played by a woman (Donna Sherman) instead of a man. Sheathed in a skin-tight black velvet jumpsuit, Sherman moves with eerie, spider-like grace as she stalks her victims -- an effect intensified by projections of a huge spider web at various points in the production.

Mostly, however, this casting gives the play an added dimension of sexual politics. Sherman's somnambulist -- though still referred to by the masculine pronoun -- is clearly a woman totally dominated by a man; at one point Caligari even sews her lips shut.

Sexual politics also figure into Bauer's suggestion of a menage a trois involving Franz, the young man determined to prove Caligari is a murderer; Franz's best friend, Alan, who becomes one of Caligari's victims; and the woman they both love, Jane. Although Derek Letsch's Franz is initially horrified by Alan's murder, in a later scene -- apparently a vestige of Franz's troubled conscience -- he imagines having committed the murder himself in a jealous rage after catching Alan in bed with Jane.

But the play also has a broader political dimension. At the core of the drama is the notion of a powerful leader -- a madman who passes for sane -- who is able to bend the will of innocent people. "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" was written in the aftermath of World War I, "the war to end all wars," but as Bauer's reworked ending suggests, the Dr. Caligaris of the world are always with us.

As befits a piece with little spoken dialogue, movement is crucial to the performances, and Tsendeas has wisely cast the core members of the local movement-oriented clown theater company, Theatricks, in three of the central roles. In particular, Tom Dougherty's Dr. Caligari is a courtly gentleman with a smile at once ingratiating and threatening, and he manipulates his ever-present walking stick so deftly, it seems to have powers of its own.

"The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" is a technically complex undertaking, and the story is sometimes murky, but Action Theater's production is largely effective. Even the occasional rough edge -- the reliance, for instance, on manually operated scenery -- is acceptable since the film is hardly polished by modern standards. And yet the film still has the power to haunt, and so does this ambitious production.

'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari'

Where: Action Theater at Mildred Dunnock Theatre, Goucher College, 1021 Dulaney Valley Road, Towson

When: 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $10

Call: 410-337-6512

Pub Date: 1/21/98

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