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Enter a Fantastic Underwater World in Symphonie Fantastique

Basil Twist's hallmark production returns to HERE.

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A scene from Symphonie Fantastique, created, designed, and directed by Basil Twist, at HERE.
(© Richard Termine)

For just 12 weeks, New York audiences have the opportunity to surrender one hour completely to fantasy, entirely divorced from plot or real-world representation. Pure imagination: Can you do it? As I watched the bits of fabric curl and flutter through the large fish tank that serves as the stage for Basil Twist's Symphonie Fantastique, I caught myself more than a few times searching for meaning and story.

"Oh no," I thought as what looked like a spider with sparkler arms approached a frail yet intrepid wisp of fabric. What did it mean that this came as the pianist played the "Dies Irae" (or "day of wrath") section of Hector Berlioz's program symphony? But Symphonie Fantastique resists such attempts to tack meaning onto its glorious unreason, making it still one of the most original things to come out of the New York theater two decades after it first emerged from the primordial soup of Twist's imagination.

Created, designed, and directed by Twist, this special anniversary presentation of Symphonie Fantastique takes place at HERE, where it premiered in 1998. Since then, Twist has designed puppets on Broadway, consulted on underwater puppetry for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and debuted multiple new works of his own creation. He also received a Macarthur Genius Grant in 2015 — but Symphonie Fantastique endures as his best-known work.

This is likely due to the sheer audacity of the piece: Puppets are almost by definition representational, yet Twist has created an entire show out of puppets that don't look like anything we've encountered before. Made of feathers, fabric, and tinsel, they move gracefully through the 1,000-gallon water tank, almost like elusive sea creatures in a Discovery Channel special about the ocean floor. Nevertheless, the undersea world of Basil Twist remains defiantly out of this world.

Twist's take on Symphonie Fantastique plays against its source material, considering that Berlioz conceived it as a "program symphony" and wrote extensive notes in the score describing an emotionally tortured artist and the unrequited love that sends him on an opium bender. It would be an understatement to say that it is a stretch to see any of that onstage.

Christopher O'Riley provides live piano accompaniment for Symphonie Fantastique.
(© Richard Termine)

While the 1998 production used a recording of the symphony, this revival features a new addition in pianist Christopher O'Riley, who sits downstage of the tank and plays Franz Liszt's piano transcription. Again, I searched for story in this recognizable human figure: Is he the artist? Are these his psychedelic dreams? O'Riley performs with all the verve and angst of a great romantic, pausing between movements to raise his palms in supplication or pull at his hair. Occasionally, he will stare directly at the audience with either a grin or a grimace, depending on your interpretation. These facial expressions are so thoroughly inscrutable that they must be another red herring, tossed out by Twist to throw us off the scent of a show that has none to begin with — because it's underwater.

A team of five puppeteers (Kate Brehm, Ben Elling, Andy Gaukel, Jonothon Lyons, and Lake Simons) use rods and wires to manipulate the submerged puppets, appearing only during a sodden curtain call. It is impossible to tell which puppeteer is responsible for which puppets, a testament to the seamless unity of their performance.

Andrew Hill's dreamy and well-considered lighting has the ability to completely change our perspective on the tank. Sometimes, two different scenes seem to be taking place at once, a flip of light transporting us between different dimensions. Kaleidoscopic projections reflect on our awestruck faces in darkened theater.

With no characters, no story, and no recognizable symbols, Symphonie Fantastique holds us transfixed, causing us to question if we ever needed any of that stuff to begin with. When so much theater in New York remains aggressively story-driven and rooted in realism, Symphonie Fantastique dares to be different, and succeeds fantastically.

A scene from Basil Twist's Symphonie Fantastique at HERE.
(© Richard Termine)
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