Last Friday was the second night of Caligari, HurlyBurly Productions' stage performance of the 1920s German Expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Famous for its color-tinted frames, painted sets and severe camera angles, the silent film follows Francis, who with his best friend, Alan, finds himself at the local fair in Holstenwall. There, the main attraction is a somnambulist named Cesare who can predict the future. His master -- Dr. Caligari -- eggs on the audience members inside his tent, goading them to "Judge for yourselves," which prompts Alan to jokingly ask: "How long do I have to live?" Apparently, he has until tomorrow.
When Alan dies, the finger points damningly at Cesare, and by extension, Dr. Caligari. Francis pursues an investigation of the two with the help of his fiancee, Jane who is later kidnapped by Caligari. But of course, she's beautiful, and naturally, the frighteningly ugly somnambulist is touched by her beauty to the point of immobility, and soon thereafter dies.
Caligari is no typical carnie, and Francis discovers that this Doctor is actually the director of the local insane asylum. But -- spoiler! -- Francis actually relates the tale from the confines of the ward in which he, Jane, and Cesare are imprisoned. Caligari is a doctor in the asylum. Or is he? Ambiguity abounds.
A liberal adaptation, HurlyBurly Productions' Caligari is more concerned with emotional presence than story. This is no venture for the plot-minded, as the production eschews rigid loyalty to the source material. Four years in the making, the play functions as an experimental exercise in recreating the film's expressionist world of shadows and instability.
In Daniel Korth and Mikka Bonel's re-imagining of the The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the audience is ushered into a dimly lit space, where two platforms stand on either end of the room. Cast members stand still as mannequins, regaled in makeup that recalls German expressionist clowns. Able-bodied audience members are expected to stand, milling between actors, who are enclosed in mini cells and hanging cages attached to the ceiling.
As the carnival leader addresses the audience in the play's opening prologue, he walks through the crowd, forcing members to move out of his swerving path. In viewing the spectacle, I felt that I had become part of the crowd in the film, who stand under the carnival tent waiting for Dr. Caligari to reveal his somnambulist. We, too, were waiting, an intense expectation and suspense overwhelming the room. "Your ears will be hungry, your eyes will want more," the leader says.
It's true, your eyes will want more -- because all too often the lighting disappears into pitch black, as the play proves an exercise in mood and ambiance. Much of the lighting is provided by the actors themselves, pointing flashlights at other cast members, or via lights on the brims of their hats.
Disorienting, spastic, and often times unnerving, at times the lack of plot and raving-mad ramblings of the inmates can be unintelligible. Many events are narrated rather than shown, and the play -- performed in vignettes -- is just as disjointed as the thoughts of its characters, all of whom straddle the border between sanity and madness. The production revolves mainly around major events from the The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari -- Francis's courting of Jane, the murders -- and mashes up different techniques and acting styles: Francis channels a sincere realism; Jane, a detached, semi-psychotic teasing; and Cesare, a mute, stifling presence.
Presence plays largely into the production, concerned with allowing the audience to "lose themselves in the dark expressionist world," and constantly reminding us of our own role within the play. During blackouts, the only perceivable sound was the rustling of the others in the crowd, the confines of the space and my own trapped nature became exceedingly palpable -- the stage became my ward. There was a moment, during the prologue, when an actor spoke straight into the face of another audience member, who, unnerved, couldn't contain a silly grin. For the duration of the play it seems, we, too, are located within the psychiatric ward, and we're made to see -- that we're all a little crazy.
Caligari runs through December 10, 2010 at Studio 385. For tickets and information visit jointhehurlyburly.org.