Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Cabinet of Dr. Caligari"

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note: entire contents copyright 1996 by Beverly Creasey

Bizarre Toothless Take on
"The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari"

at THE A.R.T.

by Beverley Creasey

One of the hallmarks of schizophrenia is the inability to distinguish foreground stimuli from background stimuli --- that is, the essential from the non-essential --- so an everyday conversation sounds like a traffic jam to a schizophrenic. It must be maddening to try in vain to single out one voice above the din. If you've ever been at a loud party or a rock concert, you know how frustrating it can be to figure outwhat the person next to you is saying ... which is how you'll be feeling at the American Repertory Theatre's new production of "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari."

John Moran's hodgepodge of a theater piece (it's not coherent enough to be a play) purports --- according to Robert Brustein in his pre-show announcement --- to be "part Grand Guignol, part silent movie and part Disneyland" Since it shares a title with the classic German silent movie of 1919 you might expect it to resemble the film or enlarge the film or pay tribute to the film in some way. It does not. It even misses the sardonic point of the movie: about what is perceived to be and what realy is "madness". (At the end of the original movie, you discover that Dr. Caligari is not a doctor at an asylum, but one of the patients.)

Moran's scri[t is a "score" (but not a musical score) of words, sound effects, background music and noise - all of which are pre-recorded -- and the dialogue is then lip-synched in performance, presumably for some eerie "horror movie" effect. It doesn't work at all. What it does is frustrate beyond words, because you can't hear the dialogue over the cacophony of incidental sounds --- a glug-glug from a flask, a chop of a hatchet, the slam of a door, the announcement on a radio.

If you blend the dialogue deep enough into the background noise, all you're left with is the staging, which in director Bob McGrath's hands is boring, linear (the actors in a straight line) and bereft of imagination. The characters themselves are so devoid of human feelings (no facial expression, no vocal expression that we can hear) that you just don't care what happens to them. The shattershot plot (if it even is a plot) involves a melodramatic struggle between a grieving young woman (Cheryl Kenan) who owns a theater, and a nasty banker (Scott Ripley) who forecloses. Some ghouls show up (specifically Alvin Epstein as Dr. Caligari) and opffer to pay the rent in exchange for one performance at the theater, during which they resurrect her dead lover (Benjamin Evett, costumed as the somnambulist from the old silent ovie) and dispatch everyone else .. in as grisly a manner as possible. The blood and guts portion of the show is actually pretty tame. "Sweeney Todd" managed more Guignol with considerbly less effort. As for Brustein's reference to Disneyland - he's evidently been at a different play. No Disneyland here.

What does take your breath away is the amount of money the A.R.T. has spent on special effects (remarkable video which looks like a fragile silent movie; intricate scrim projections) ... effects which, all by themselves are spectacular, but which don't add up to much in a show which is at heart static and dull.

"The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" (in rep till 22 March)
LOEB DRAMA CENTER American Repertory Theatre
64 Brattle Street, CAMBRIDGE
1(617)547-8300 Check the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) website.

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