REVIEW: The Cabinet (Redmoon Theater)

The Cabinet’s surreal artistry returns

 Cabinet Redmoon 09

 Redmoon Theater presents

The Cabinet

 

By Mickle Maher; conceived by Frank Maugeri
Music by Mark Messing
 
Directed by Vanessa Stalling
Through March 7 (more info)

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

The shadowy carnival showman Dr. Caligari, and his prime exhibit, the never-waking somnambulist Cesare, have been the stuff of nightmare ever since the 1919 premiere of Robert Wiene’s spooky silent film “Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari.” A highlight of the German Expressionist movement, the film contrasts light and shadow in eerie, tilted sets; heavy, exaggerated makeup and a spooky, suspenseful story line revolving around a series of mysterious murders.

Cabinet Redmoon Cabinet 02Redmoon Theater‘s The Cabinet alters the story somewhat — here, Cesare becomes the narrator — but remains true to the original’s skewed, black-and-white imagery; sinister, melodramatic characters and surreal, dreamlike pace.

This production (inspired, a press release says, by a request from White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel when Redmoon performed there last Halloween) is all but unchanged from the 2005 production.

Neil Verplank’s magical, 11-by-14-foot, wooden cabinet with its angular doors and drawers once again serves as a unique stage, setting off the rod puppets, shadow puppets and hand puppets beautifully designed for the first production by Lisa Barcy and Scott Pondrom. Clever pop-up books by Laura Miracle and Laura Annis also work into the show. Redmoon’s artistry remains impeccable.

Hissing and spitting, Cesare’s narration, a creepy voiceover by Colm O’Reilly (the only speaking role), seems to come from an old-fashioned gramophone (designed by Christopher Furman) jutting out from one of the doors, while the words of Dr. Caligari are conveyed through rear-projected supertitles at the cabinet’s top. Original music by Mark Messing, in the style of early 20th-century silent-film accompaniments, adds to the dark, uncanny mood.

Cabinet Redmoon 08 (2) Cabinet Redmoon 04
Cabinet Redmoon 06 Cabinet Redmoon Cabinet 03

Five ghoulish, grim-faced, androgynous puppeteers, fully made up, monocled and clad in black, white and shades of gray, slither through a variety of agile acrobatics onstage as they manipulate the more than 50 puppets through the cabinet’s 13 doors and drawers. Missi Davis, Sam Deutsch, Sarah Ely, Matt Rudy and Dustin Valenta contort themselves and pass puppets and props among themselves with clockwork precision.

The change of narrators does cut down the story’s suspense somewhat. Clearly, we’re supposed to sympathize with and fear for the unfortunate sleepwalker Cesare, the helpless tool of the evil doctor, caught in his endless nightmare — yet the mere fact that he’s telling the tale lets us know he comes out all right.

Haunting, and beautifully done, “The Cabinet” is no lightweight puppet show. Though whimsical in design, it feels ponderous and dirgelike — the hour-long piece seems to stretch much longer, as if the audience were caught in Cesare’s endless trance.

 

Rating: ★★★½

 

Cabinet Redmoon 07Notes: “The Cabinet” is suitable for audiences 13 years old and up. Limited free parking is available at the theater.

At 10:15 p.m. Saturdays, Feb. 27 and March 6, Redmoon will host “Boneshaker,” an evening of music with DJ Red Menace, “environmental performances” and an open bar. Admission is free to ticketholders for the 9 p.m. performances of “The Cabinet” on those nights, $5 otherwise.

Scenes from The Cabinet, 2005

REVIEW: The Emigrants (Moving Stories Theatre)

The Polish Odd Couple

The Emigrants - AA and XX

Moving Stories Theatre presents:

The Emigrants

 

by Slawomir Mrozek
directed by Goran Milev
through February 21st (more info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Chicago audiences rarely get a chance to see the stimulating and provocative work of Polish playwright Slawomir Mrozek. For that reason alone, it’s worthwhile to high tail it to Moving Stories Theatre’s showing of The Emigrants at The Artistic Home. This is the first in a series of World Theater they will be presenting for the 2010 season and if their opening shot is any indication of future productions, we are all in for a real treat.

Written in 1974, The Emigrants reflects both the philosophical and the mundane dilemmas of émigrés from Eastern Block states living in the West. Commenting on his own immigrant experience in a letter, Mrozek wrote, “I never experience such a Image1sharpening of [my] senses and thoughts as in an unfamiliar country, an unfamiliar city, among unfamiliar people, whose language preferably I do not know. [This offers] such intensification of life, of my whole existence.”

That state aptly describes Emigrant XX (Goran Milev, who also directs the productions), the prosaic prole who wants to make just enough money to own a house back in the old, totalitarian home country. Emigrant AA (Joe Mack), a Polish liberal intellectual succeeds him in education and abstract understanding, but hasn’t enough drive to get dressed and step out of the basement apartment they share. Without a dollar in his pocket, XX finds excitement going to the train station and standing among the people there, while AA stays on the subterranean level, imagining himself as an organism in the bowels of a great beast.

Together, XX and AA make up a pre-Perestroika Polish odd couple–getting on each other’s nerves over issues that are either petty, but significant to daily survival, or are deeply profound but, without traction, vanish into airy nothingness. Milev, in particular, strikes all the right notes portraying XX’s new emigrant awkwardness and anxiousness to be acceptable. Compounded by a capacity for taking concepts too far and reluctance in admitting when he doesn’t understand something, XX’s character drives most of the comedy of the piece.

Image7 Indeed, he seems to be its heart and soul, especially when AA determines to make him the center of his new work of political theory. Never mind that AA hasn’t completed any work, intellectual or otherwise, since he’s arrived—XX cannot leave until it is done. Here, the enlightened intellectual begins to reflect the control of the totalitarian state they have both left. But then, as XX astutely pointed out earlier, under totalitarianism the both of them were equal—in slavery. New rules and not-so-new divisions of class and privilege determine their value as human beings in the so-called free world.

It’s here where the production falls short in teasing out all the layers of darkness, paradox, and absurdity. But then, Mzorek packs more into an 80-minute one-act than most playwrights do into two hours. Mack’s interpretation of AA is especially casual—that, and no discernible accent, makes AA like a slightly more educated Dude from The Big Lebowski than a despondent Polish intellectual émigré. A certain lack of fire and intensity, particularly when holding forth dearly held political views, robs Mack of an edge to be realistically threatening once the story turns dark. Both actors do sustain the dynamic tension between them, however, long enough to suggest the pearl of madness at the bottom of AA’s soul–and the pearl of wit that dwells at the bottom of XX’s.

The Emigrant’s run will be short—only until February 21st. For those who crave more intellectual fare and seek a break from the cultural insularity of American life, this small, dense political drama may prove to be a walk on the wild side.

Rating: ★★★

 

the emigrants