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When Charlie Chaplin’s film City Lights premiered in 1931, the actor was anxious that it would be seen as an anachronism: The silent film era had come to an end. But despite the seeming obsolescence of silent films, it was a commercial and critical success. There was still life in the iconic Tramp persona he had created around his virtuoso skill as a mime and an under-cranked film camera. Consequently, Chaplin resisted making a true talkie until 1940’s The Great Dictator.
In this 130th anniversary year of Chaplin’s birth, Pointless Theatre Company has adapted one of his most admired films into an enchanting live performance. The plot is simple: Chaplin’s Tramp, a vagrant with gentlemanly aspirations (Kerry McGee), is smitten with a blind woman (Sharalys Silva) who sells flowers on a street corner. Despite his own precarious lot in life, he becomes determined to help her. When he saves a drunken millionaire from a suicide attempt, the Tramp gains a friend for life—at least until this friend sobers up. The plucky hero must work a series of jobs to pay for his sweetheart’s groceries, the rent for the apartment she shares with her grandmother, and an innovative medical cure for blindness, at least until the millionaire goes on another bender and becomes generous once again. All the while, the Tramp knows if the treatment is successful, his beloved will see that he is not the wealthy benefactor he has allowed her to imagine.
McGee might not closely resemble Chaplin, but her careful study of the posture, mannerisms, and facial tics with which he constructed the Tramp’s persona is the important part of her reconstruction. Silva, likewise, is no doppelgänger for Virginia Cherrill but she has recreated every gesture of the flower girl. This is not mere technical mimicry: This adaptation’s final scene has the same emotional payoff that has drawn cinephiles to the film for nearly a century.
Director Matt Reckeweg helms this affectionate homage to a classic work, but in the process of translating the story from the two-dimensional screen to the three dimensions of the intimate performance space of Dance Loft on 14, he and his collaborators have avoided mere academic reconstruction. They emphasize Chaplin’s balletic choreography and his original score. The ballet influence is particularly evident in the staging of the film’s boxing match between McGee’s Tramp and Jon Reynolds’ prizefighter, with Scott Whalen as the ever-in-the-way referee joining the dance.
Pointless’ brand of physical theater also incorporates puppetry, which allows the ensemble to bring an entirely new dimension of performance not present in the film. The puppets, designed and built by Alex Vernon, approach life size, consisting of heads, torsos, and arms that one or two performers manipulate. It creates a fascinating double-or-triple-image in the audience’s imagination as the actors’ faces fill in what a sculpted head cannot, and their choreographed walks and stances fill in for the lower bodies. One often wonders if they are witnessing something of these puppet characters’ inner lives.
Lee Gerstenhaber is a particularly delightful foil as the puppeteer behind the Tramp’s two main antagonists, the mischievous paperboy and the millionaire’s snobbish butler. Whalen and Eirin Stevenson pair to physicalize the millionaire’s mood swings from suicidal despair to mania, and his varying degrees of sobriety and inebriation. Vanessa Chapoy and Reynolds, as the puppeteers behind the grandmother, have a touching chemistry with Silva. (Vernon sculpted her with Silva’s cheekbones to provide a family resemblance.) Part of the magic behind this style of puppetry is being able to see exactly how the trick is done.
Adapting the film to the stage demands imaginative methods in other places as well: Wooden models pushed with rods create the city’s traffic congestion, allowing the audience to simultaneously see both the chaos of collisions narrowly avoided and the exasperation of the motorists. The cinematic logic of the editing room did not permit Chaplin to capture these juxtapositions and moments of visual comedy, as happens when the millionaire’s drink cart careens through the intersection.
Visions of Love manages to be sufficiently reverent to the original film to both please fans and serve as an introduction to the story. Claim a front row seat to this immersive experience to take in all its charms.
To Feb. 9 at 4618 14th St. NW. $15–$32. (202) 733-6321. pointlesstheatre.com.