Puppets and German Expressionism make for entertaining nightmares.
Puppets and German Expressionism make for entertaining nightmares. Credit: Handout photo by Stanley Photography

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If hearing that a theater troupe famous for its puppetry is putting on an adaptation of the silent horror film classic The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari doesn’t get your blood racing, you may be a somnambulist. That’s “sleepwalker,” for those unfamiliar with the source material—which is tons of spooky fun and available on Netflix, hint hint.

The movie is a hallmark of the German Expressionist movement and a touchstone for horror and Surrealist art. Though it’s nearly a century old, it has the timeless quality of nightmare on its side. And the team at Pointless Theatre are astute students of the form, based on the evidence of their adaptation Doctor Caligari, a perfect melding of source material with re-interpretation. Like the mad doctor himself, the production casts a spell of awed silence over its audience, and the result is the most exciting 70 minutes of theater you’re liable to find in D.C. right now.

The play is “silent,” in that the actors mouth rather than speak their lines. A screen projects the dialogue in the manner of silent movie interstitials, while an electronically distorted three-piece strings section plays a spectacularly eerie original score by Michael Winch (who also solos on violin). From an asylum, the hero, Francis (Frank Cevarich, nailing the character’s fidgets and lanky movements), relays his story in six acts. A traveling fair came through his small German town, and the smartly outfitted but shifty-eyed Dr. Caligari (Lex Davis, the devil in his eyes) was on hand to hawk Cesare, the fortune-telling somnambulist under his command. When Cesare’s predictions about death start to come true, it’s due to a rash of murders (shown to the audience in silhouette), and Francis is trapped in this crazed landscape of terror.

Every element of this adaptation is a hoot. Cevarich and Davis have faces made for Expressionism. The rest of the cast, clad in raccoon-eyed makeup and monochrome costumes, gives exaggerated physical performances, stretching out fingers like claws and moving at a deliberate pace, as though trapped in a waking nightmare. Under the madcap direction of Matt Reckeweg, the play itself feels like Caligari’s carnival.

It’s too bad there aren’t more puppets, but the ones that are here are ingeniously deployed. By turning Cesare into a life-sized felt creation with a giant head and slowly beating eyes, puppet designer Genna Davidson makes him an otherworldly presence. The onstage puppeteers are mischievous, with permission to wink at us, because they—and we—are all a part of this Surrealist conspiracy. And when Francis runs to the police in an attempt to stop the murders, we see they are bug-eyed marionettes, with the strings being pulled by… Caligari himself! (Cue shrieking violin.)

One thing the stage version can’t capture is the film’s distinctive landscapes, the way characters run across garish jagged paths that stretch far into the distance without end. Set designer Patti Kalil manages her own kind of niftiness, adorning the set with black-and-white zigzags and hidden compartments for the various puppet effects. The show is great for kids: It will give them nightmares, yes, but the right kinds of nightmares.