New York

Creation, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Nearly 70 years after its premiere, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari continues to attract theatrical adapters. It’s not hard to see why. Structured and staged like a Jacobean revenge tragedy, the silent movie displays a dramatic range that is practically Shakespearean, from moments of supernatural horror to the larger allegorical theme of institutional power run amok. Interwoven with these classically theatrical elements are a feverish Weimar psychosexual angst and an Expressionist mise-en-scène that give this unusual art-film period piece the appearance of a quintessentially modern myth.

As a conceptually controlled melodrama, the movie made perfect material for Creation, a collaborative theater ensemble that combines dance, music, and architecture in their mixed-media theatrical productions. The company’s staged version, adapted and directed by Creation member Susan Mosakowski, was an amazingly faithful live reproduction of its cinematic model; the movie’s look and action were recreated with a scrupulous mimicry that bordered on the eerie. Less successful, however, were Mosakowski’s efforts to generate a meta-Caligari by grafting texts from Nietzsche, Hitler, and Shakespeare onto the minimal dialogue of the original. It’s true that the film’s opening and closing scenes showing the student/narrator as an insane patient in Dr. Caligari’s asylum were added to the screenplay by the film’s producers to vitiate the tale’s revolutionary allegory (the insane evil of “an unlimited state authority that idolizes power,” as one of the scriptwriters put it). But these framing scenes, which were included in Creation’s production, hardly drained the story of its prophetic wallop. The interpolations of pertinent thoughts about power from Thus Spake Zarathustra, Mein Kampf, and Julius Caesar came off as a mildly interesting yet finally digressive deconstructionist exercise. The thematically related glosses simply made little dramatic impact. For example, Creation’s Caligari rolled right past the film’s finale (when the “murderer” is revealed as a powerful “doctor”) into a mélange of textual fragments (shards of the Bard), tableaux, and farcical comings and goings by the characters, the point of which was obscure. Just as superfluous was the addition of a cliched character, a kind of dominatrix-chanteuse, “Lola Lola,” who appeared to be borrowed from The Blue Angel as a sort of generic statement about decadence.

Yet the strength of this clone Caligari was not limited to its letter-perfect simulacrum of the film’s production elements—here, in sets by Tom Dale Keever, costumes by Richard Curtis, and makeup by Gary Phillips—nor the uncannily appropriate music by Wayne Horvitz and Robin Holcomb, and the noirish lighting by Pat Dignan. As a stage show, Caligari bypassed the quaint distancing of the original’s by-now hoary film modes to drive the true horror home. Sharing the same space and time with Caligari’s creatures in this theatrical incarnation became, over time, an unsettling experience. That the cartoonish nightmare was so compelling, despite its straining for significance, was due to the accomplished ensemble of performers, all of whom excelled in the mimelike physical expressiveness required to conjure up a hallucinatory dream world persuasively.

John Howell