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A CurtainUp Review

Symphonie Fantastique

Symphonie Fantastique
Some of Symphonie Fantastique's fabric "puppets"
The dictionary defines a puppet "as a small figure of a person or animal, having a cloth body and hollow head, designed to be fitted over and manipulated by the hand" also "as a figure having jointed parts animated from above by strings or wires." True to his surname, Basil Twist has given the definition a new twist. The way he sees it a puppet is "something animated" and "the trick of puppetry is making something seem alive or calling the life out of something."

According to Twist's definition, Symphonie Fantastique is indeed a puppet show. A rather abstract one to be sure with its 180 puppets or animated "things" (fabrics, feathers, glitter, vinyl, plastic dyes, etc.) manipulated by Twist and four other puppeteers through a 1,000 gallon water tank to illustrate Hector Berlioz's fevered five-part symphony inspired by his obsessive pursuit of the woman he eventually married.

While I like puppetry, I somehow didn't feel compelled to see this aquatic fantasy during its much extended run at the tiny Here Arts Center. Now that it's returned, larger than ever (the original show used a 500 gallon tank and just four puppeteers), and to launch the spanking new five -theater complex known as the Dodger Stages, the time seemed ripe to catch up with Twist's brand of cooler than cool puppetry and at the same time check out the new venue.

It turns out that my initial reservations were not unfounded. This is definitely a show that requires a not for everyone caveat. The images are indeed quite hypnotic and often beautiful. You can't fault the Berlioz music (except perhaps, that it wouldn't hurt to tone down the volume on the Philadelphia Orchestra recording that's used -- and as a regular at symphonic concerts, I found the clapping after each movement irritating). However, what's likely to be off-putting to some (this writer included) is that when the ruffled Viennese style drape is raised and the theater is thrown into pitch blackness, what you see has more the feel of watching a film or computer screen than a live performance. Unless you're one of the ten people seated backstage, the very much alive, hard-working puppeteers aren't seen until the draped curtain drops for the last time.

For all his imagination and skill, Mr. Twist and his wet-suited colleagues seem to count on audiences to be totally bowled over by his wizardry with abstract forms and colors to meld Wassily Kandinsky's paintings, choreography and story-telling symphonic music -- so much so , that they won't get more than a tad weary of staring at his screen-like water tank. Here's hoping that those of us not totally persuaded that this is a magical experience will be in the minority and that this first show for the Dodger Stages will be as big a hit as it was downtown. But here's hoping too that the sleek and spacious new theater complex will not be home mainly to novelty shows like this or concerts. To date the two other shows that have been officially booked, are a Mandy Patinkin concert and a modestly sized musical, The Immigrant (which we saw and liked during its CAP21 showcase run --the review). That leaves two theaters waiting for dramatic fireworks in the form of exciting new plays to go off.

Symphonie Fantastique
Berliotz adapted for puppet performance by Basil Twist
Pupeteers: Basil Twist, Matthew Acheson, Oliver Dalzell, Sophia Michaelles, Lake Simons, Kevin Taylor
Swing Puppets: Deana Acheson, Chris de Ville
Lighting Design: Andrew Hill
Music: Sony Classical recording performed by The Philiadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Ormandy
Running time: 60 minutes
Dodger Stages/Theatre 5, 340 West 50th Street (8th/ 9th Avenues), 212/239-6200
From 8/31/04; opening 9/16/04.
Tues through Fri @ 8:00PM, Sat & Sun @ 7:00PM Sat @ 10:00PM, Sun @ 3:00PM.
Tickets $25-$45-$65.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 9/16 press performance
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