The Pointless Theatre Company troupe has taken on a major “dare” in adapting a landmark silent expressionist cult film into to a live stage production. Doctor Caligari from Pointless evokes the pounding fear and elevated heart rate of the descent into madness based upon the stylized German Expressionist black-and-white-and-many shades of gray nearly century old The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. In its live production, the Pointless folk show themselves to be truly “inspired by the film’s distinctively sharp and distorted design and composition”.
Pointless certainly has created a confident production that mashes together many creative arts including cinema, theater, dance, puppetry, along with usage of masks and original music. There also a major sore point in one key area I will get to in this review.
For those un-familiar with the 1920 silent movie The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a quick story-line. It tells the story of a possibly unhinged Dr. Caligari (Lex Davis) who uses a puppet-like somnambulist (sleep-walker) named Cesare to commit crimes and murders. The good doctor is a controlling puppet-master smitten with his powers over those who have treated him poorly or a young woman named Jane (Rachel Menyuk) that he covets. Several other characters including two close buddies named Francis (Frank Cevarich) and Alan (Matthew Sparacino) find their pre-ordained unpleasant fates.
The show’s ending is one fit for our modern world. Things do not wrap up clearly and neatly in this creepy world of Bedlam. What the audience takes away is up to each audience member. After all, this is no television police procedural. Nope not even close, thankfully, to the likes of the always good guys somehow win out at the end Criminal Minds or that ilk.
Under the self-assured hands of Director Matt Reckeweg, Doctor Caligari has many high notes. First is when we step into the Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint thanks to Set Designer Patti Kalil with scenery by way of Renegade Productions. We are inmates in a marvelous depiction of a vivid, wild world of hallucinatory visuals. We are in a place of no escape; full of tilted, jagged, crooked sharp-edges with several tight spaces for entrances and exits. With painted shades of flat gray, white and black lit by low wattage, film-noirish lighting (Navid Azeez) we are in a position of no escape; a delusional mindscape of graphic depression and claustrophobia.
If you know the movie, you can try to sink into your unpadded chair to see what you recall of the movie. The answer will be quite a great deal. If you are unfamiliar with the movie, let yourself marvel at what the self-described love for European avant-garde of the early 20th century can lead to. Over the course of the 80-minute, six “silent” acts (except for non-stop music), there are title cards projected from a not-quite-straight monitor above the live action (Alex Leidy is listed as media designer). The title (dialogue) cards have the look of being squiggly hand-lettered and then processed to appear as aged film stock. Nice, detailed touch!
Reckeweg groomed his cast into a lurching, side-ways, stylized type of movement. Little is ever head-on. Of particular note are the well-accomplished manner of the actors elongating their limbs and fingers or tightly clenching and tensing up their bodies. That gives each characters a feeling or turmoil from a troubled mind. Turmoil is enhanced with Kyra Corradin’s masks. Many of the masks, including some monkey-like faces, may remind you of Picasso and Braque cubist paintings
The Cesare sleepwalker character is a life-size puppet well-controlled by handles by Dr. Caligari and other times by three unnamed ensemble members. The Caesar puppet and several smaller stringed “police” puppets were masterfully rendered by the fertile mind of Genna Davison.
The 8-member ensemble includes the four already mentioned actors playing characters with names as well as four without names (Zachary Fernebok, Lee Gerstenhaber, Madeline Key, and Scott Whalen). Each of the eight-member ensemble separately and in also in well-choreographed groups were at one a twisted, angular, lurching style of acting. They are also in- synchronization when they are mouthing dialogue that is shown on the monitor above them.
There is one major, challenging off-putting feature for the Pointless Doctor Caligari. It is not a mere quibble. The mercilessly, trenchant “electronically distorted” music composition overwhelms the production to the point of interfering with the production’s other terrifically rendered design elements.
Michael Winch created the musical score and it was performed by Mr. Winch on violin, and his fellow musicians Rick Netherton on bass, and Madeline Waters on cello.
Unfortunately, to me, the electric violin became showy rather than affecting. The electric violin left few “silent” voids for me to take a moment to process the terror before my eyes. The unrelenting discordant sounds of the electric violin became assaulting like fingernails on a blackboard or a screech with an echo.
Sound is different than a visual. Put another way, there are moments when an audience may decide to look away for a respite to catch one’s breath or blink a nano-second for relief. That is easily doable with visuals. But for the ears, there was little of that space in the aural landscape of the Doctor Caligari. It is a constant squeeze of sound. Even that master of dread and terror in music, Bernard Herrmann with all his classic Hitchcock scores and even Taxi Driver provided some change in tonal quality and note structure over the course of a film.
Pointless Theatre has produced a Doctor Caligari that is intense, bracing and singular. You will be left to wonder who might be evil and who might be delusional. Yes, you will find yourself on the edge of your seat descending into madness with the Pointless production’s characters. This is no bright, chirper theater evening out.
So, if you are ready for theater of no escape, no exit, with no intermission, Doctor Caligari is here. The Pointless Theatre Company troupe continues to add to its original repertoire and inventive style to DC’s already vibrant theater scene.
Running Time: 80 minutes, with no intermission.