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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Richard III logo

Historically, theater and film people have frequently been at odds. Film has threatened the existence of low-budget theater since the early 20th century, giving rise to mega-producers like the Shuberts. Playwrights George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber sounded the battle cry against the film industry with Stage Door, which depicted struggling actresses trying not to sell out to the screen. Hollywood's cheeky response: A hit adaptation of the play, starring Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers.

Exactly what John Chatterton's musical adaptation of the classic horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari contributes to this ongoing conflict is difficult to gauge. Is his play a conciliatory gesture, marrying silent film and musical theater? Or does he intend to provoke tomato-wielding film students, prepared to defend the honor of this cinematic landmark?

Perhaps Chatterton simply saw Robert Wiene's film as a vehicle for campy fun. Given Caligari's stock horror plot, who can blame him? Told in flashback, the story of the stage adaptation follows the strange things that happen in and around the small German town of Holstenwal when psychiatrist Dr. Caligari (Darrel Blackburn) brings a somnambulist (professional jargon for sleepwalker) to the annual town fair. Caligari promises that his patient, Cesare (Oliver Burg), asleep for 25 years, will wake before the townspeople's eyes. He does awaken...and a string of murders follows.

Although fairly true to the original plot, the play does diverge. For example, the musical's crazed doctor does not hypnotize Cesare to commit the murders; rather, he slips him a secret, sinister potion. (Were lyricists Richard Lawton and Douglas Hicton thinking of Jekyll & Hyde?) Whereas the film's Cesare hurls himself into oblivion, the play has him killed by the gallant hero, Francis (Gregg Kapp). Director David Leidholdt does not translate the expressionistic elements of the film to the stage, though he might have attempted to do so through lighting.

In short, film buffs should steer clear. To a more general audience, Caligari offers a funny, campy spoof of the original. The production plays up the film's melodrama; when encountering corpses, for example, the actors swoon and recoil in standard terror. Robin Shane's make-up and costume designs, particularly for Cesare, seem appropriate to a county fair's haunted house. For the score, Douglas Hicton sets his electric piano to "organ."

The chilliest thing about this adaptation is Midtown Festival's famed air-conditioning; the play does not try to frighten so much as tickle. And as any child can attest, being tickled can be either exhilarating or annoying. This Caligari often behaves like an older sibling set on making the baby of the family laugh at any expense. One gag has a main character constantly running to the bathroom. In another, Cesare proclaims that he is not tired because "I sleep a lot." When the town's chief clerk is bound and murdered, a citizen observes that the official was "wrapped in red tape." These corny bits deserve rim-shots.

The show has its bloopers. Although set designer James Maronek's dilapidated flats pay respect to the movie, they nearly toppled on multiple occasions during the performance I attended (and probably not for the first time; one was duct-taped from recent breakage.) Some actors ignored imaginary doors when entering houses, only to have others highlight their goofs by knocking on those doors moments later. But such is the charm of fringe theater festivals: the presentations may be unpolished, but they're original.

Just ask Genesis Repertory, which brings marionettes and other touches to its production of Richard III. One of these puppets serves as the incarnation of King Richard's soul, hideous from his misdeeds. Having a congenital hunchback and dealt a bad hand (literally and metaphorically) from a curse, his deformities make him unlikely to "prove a lover." Since living well is only part of the best revenge, he attempts to reach the throne by murdering everyone in his path. Genesis' production of this story with two Richards, in human and effigy forms, suggests that the greatest villain of all time might have a human side.

At least, the production originally intended to run with this conceit. Somewhere along the line, it got sidetracked. Perhaps director Jay Michaels realized at some point that Shakespeare was not an apologist for his villains. Actor Paul Nicholas certainly can't find Richard III's common humanity; he keeps his performance at two emotional levels, angry and commanding. Even when wheedling his way to the crown, he doesn't speak with sugar in his voice, but with gravel. It seems improbable that this Richard could sweet-talk his way to the position of court jester, let alone king.

The stage set for Richard III shows only the roughest sides of this historical tragedy. En route to the throne, Richard killed Lady Anne's husband, Edward Prince of Wales. When Richard later asks for Anne's hand in marriage, the woman's emotions run the gamut from disgust to rage; but actress Sharita Storm Sage never lets her character's vulnerability peek through, leaving the audience baffled as to why she eventually gives in to Richard. His exclamation "Was ever woman in this humour woo'd?" takes on added pertinence here.

The play's body count makes it ripe for parody, and Genesis Repertory had the good humor to explore that route. This Richard III begins with a "dumb show," a one-minute puppet reenactment of the story in which dead marionettes were piled on top of one another. One puppeteer even hummed Star Wars' "Imperial March" for the Richard marionette's entrances. Would that the company extended this spirit of creative exploration to its main stage.

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