Film is a tricky art form. It has given us some of the most compelling and interesting artistic statements ever in films like Citizen Kane, Gone With the Wind, and countless others, and it has also given us complete garbage (The recent Hansel and Gretel comes to mind).
But of the great, varied, and brief history of film, the early years are quite interesting and have given us some of the best work of the relatively new art. Pioneers of this new art form were truly ground-breaking, inventive, imaginative, and original as the few remaining silent films show. The 1920 German silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is clearly one of the best. With its German Expressionistic style and its angular, dreamlike set-the likes of which has been imitated in nearly every Tim Burton film-Dr. Caligari has continued to inspire audiences for almost a century, and the Overtime Theatre's world premiere stage adaptation of the film is a stunningly beautiful tribute to both the film and to the power of both cinema and live theatre. Over the course of one hour, the Overtime Theatre transports the audience into another world of unique, living, breathing art, and the result is absolutely extraordinary.
The stage version of Dr. Caligari carefully follows that of director Robert Wiene's original film. The story takes place in the German village of Holstenwall where a mysterious Dr. Caligari has recently arrived to take part in the town's annual fair. His signature attraction is the presentation of a somnambulist, Cesare, rumored to have been asleep for the past twenty years. The arrival of Dr. Caligari and Cesare is followed by a string of curious murders, crimes which our hero, Francis, is determined to solve.
With her original adaptation, Sophia Bolles has retained much of the original in both content and style. This Caligari, like the classic movie, is silent and in black and white. Most of the title cards which are superimposed over the set are taken directly from the film, ensuring that the "dialogue" remain intact. However, Bolles does trim the 72 minute film down to an hour and tightens up the plot in some spots, resulting in a piece that is fast-paced and enthralling from beginning to end.
Director Seth Larson takes Bolles's adaptation and punctuates every moment with visual poetry that adds texture and life to the story. His staging is so complete, organic, and dance-like that you won't notice or care about the lack of dialogue, and in the murder scenes, the combination of violence with silence is chilling and horrifying. Aaron Krohn's lighting, which predominantly uses ambers, sepias, and blues, fits the early cinema aesthetic perfectly. Likewise, the black and white costumes and makeup by Bolles and Ally Ducey respectively greatly enhance the feel and tone of the show, as does sound designer Alex Coy's use of Timothy Brock's haunting score to the 1996 release of the film.
But of the design team, it is really the sets and props by Abigail Entsminger that takes center stage. Entsminger has transformed the Overtime Theatre into a massive, three-dimensional, black and white mural which borrows the stark, angular, distorted look of the film. Her set is entirely original and yet a splendid homage and tipping of the hat to the film.
Larson's company of actors is completely at home in this bizarre world. The entire 13 person cast seems oddly at ease with such a demanding piece of work. Believably telling a tale is no easy task, and doing so without words is all the more challenging. But for this cast, storytelling with purely physical techniques is simple. Alex Coy is devilishly creepy and sinister as the limping, beard-stroking Dr. Caligari. As Cesare, Stephan Gaeth contorts himself into incredible shapes, and as Francis, Robert Jerdee is able to give us a hero's journey through the emotions of love, fear, anxiety, anger, and rage using nothing but his face and body.
It's remarkable that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a stage piece that owes so much to a 90 year old film, feels so fresh and original, but it is without a doubt one of the most memorable and astonishing works of theater I've seen in years. Not many artists have the courage or even the know-how to stage something this bold, but I'm glad Overtime Theatre has moxie to spare. If you are a fan of theater, film, or both, you need to see this glorious production.
THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI plays the Overtime Theatre at 1203 Camden St, San Antonio, TX 78215 now thru February 16th. Performances are Thursdays - Saturdays at 8pm. Tickets are $14.00 general admission or $10.00 students, teachers, active military, or seniors. Showings of silent films will follow the performances on Thursday, February 14th and Saturday, February 16th. For tickets and more information, visit www.theovertimetheater.org.