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By Nik Oldershaw and Jenn Tisdale

Pointless Theater recently brought The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to the big stage, well to the small stage, which is part of the reason it works so well. I was vaguely familiar with the film but wanted to bring my friend and film enthusiast Nik Oldershaw along whom I defer to regarding all things cinema. If you’re unfamiliar with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (warning: for those addicted to audio dialogue it’s a silent film GASP!) it’s considered to be the first horror film. The play opens with Francis (played by Frank Cevarich) telling a story, a good old fashioned tale of woe. In it he describes a strange man who comes to town with a cabinet of curiosities, Dr. Caligari (played by Lex Davis). Dr. Caligari is in possession of a somnambulist, a sleepwalker who can tell the future, but the future he tells is always bleak and murderous.

Jenn Tisdale: I couldn’t figure out why I jotted down “New York in the 60’s,” until I remembered the intimacy of the theater itself was what New York in the 60’s must have felt like, a small and fascinating show on every corner.

Nik Oldershaw: Orson Welles once said “Black and white is the actor’s best friend… every performance is better in black and white” it certainly rings true here. The show, remaining faithful to the source material, is performed in black and white. The monochrome lighting coupled with the actors’ heavy white make up and dark costumes brilliantly mimics the aesthetic of the silent era.

The attention to detail is impressive. Even the actors have dark hair, no black & white stone was left unturned. The interesting part about this performance is everyone in the room is part of it. The “orchestra,” a cellist, an upright bass and a violinist, all sit on stage and the audience at one point becomes THE audience for Dr. Caligari.

The set is stark and jagged, perfectly echoing the German Expressionism of the original film. Even more impressive is the way the actors contort their bodies becoming just as angular and frightening as the set around them. An improvement over the film is the inclusion of a screen above the stage displaying the dialogue cards, keeping the spirit of the silent film alive without interrupting the action.

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I agree though my one complaint about the title cards themselves is the chosen font made it somewhat difficult to read. However that wasn’t much of a problem as the lighting and music were so in sync with the actors’ movement that they elicited the perfect emotional response to every scene. Whenever the actors were in a particular heightened emotional state the violin would increase in speed and pitch filling in where any sort of dialogue would have left off.

The music in this production might be the most vital part for me. I love the original score composed by Michael Winch. As Jenn said it punctuates the action perfectly, intensifying the drama of each scene. The actors really crank it up to 11 in this show and the music stays right there with them, preventing performances from ever feeling too over the top or campy, which could have easily happened in the wrong hands. It’s just so good. I had the main theme stuck in my head for two days afterward and I honestly want an mp3 of it.

While reading the press release about this performance one word jumped out at me and boy was I nervous: puppets. Puppets can go one of two ways. One, the masterful work of Jim Henson and all that he’s created or two…please send help it’s a ventriloquist dummy come to eat our souls. Thankfully these puppets (and I’m still somewhat reluctant to use this word) fell safely in between these two extremes. The name of this game is unsettling and the puppetry fit neatly into the performances of the VERY much alive actors.

The puppets are fantastic, as are the puppeteers controlling them. They add a whole new, unnerving element to Caligari. The more I think about the original score and the inclusion of the puppets the more I find myself preferring this version of Caligari over the original film. If you are going to see this play and you haven’t seen the film yet, I’m envious of you. By today’s standards The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari might be considered, by the average viewer, a difficult film to watch. One that you appreciate for its significance at the time it was made but Pointless Theater’s production is immediately engrossing and effective. It’s perfect and it’s well worth your time.

Doctor Caligari runs through April 4 at the Mead Theatre Lab.

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