Watching The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether , a dramatic adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe story, I was struck by the desire to find the original and read it alone, to hide in a corner and allow sinister thoughts to take root in my imagination, consume my mind like ivy, and terrify me. Poe’s skill for evoking suspense, tension, and paranoia is undeniable, and his best works render internal terror palpably on the page. Unfortunately, these talents are not as strongly employed in this theatrical version of The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether . In the story, a foolish Visitor is received for a dinner at an insane asylum in the French countryside. Though the hints of pending doom are anything but subtle, the Visitor persists in his curiosity, leading him to uncover the obvious (and therefore less terrifying) truth about his hosts. That this revelation produces a lackluster climax is one of the major problems with a dramatic retelling.
However, as with Poe’s story, the production begins with promise: foreboding organ music, simultaneously piercing and deep, introduces the show. As credits roll, shadow puppets float into view, and eventually two figures emerge to tell the tale. The puppets, beautifully and intricately designed by Candice Burridge (also the show’s director), are a throwback to a performance mode popular in the mid to late 1800s (Poe’s era).
The shadow puppetry is endearing and funny, but conveys none of the dread that builds so gradually and surreptitiously in Poe’s stories. Still, with the perkily spooky music, written by John Vomit, the light style is enjoyable. The music echoes the creations of Danny Elfman, composer for many of Tim Burton’s films. Indeed, much of the shadow puppetry is reminiscent of Burton’s stop-animation films.
Though it does not add suspense, the shadow theater is the most effective element of the production. The mode allows for the narrative to take center stage, and Poe’s cleverly wandering sentences, packed with the glorious adjectives and exclamations of 19th-century American literature (Capital! Cavalier!), can be focused on. However, when the screen is turned off and the actors appear onstage (a scene change that uses a cleverly v-shaped set designed by Mark Marcante), the charm of the shadow theater dissolves.
As the Visitor, Dan Drogynous is physically as lovely a rendering of Poe’s sensibilities as the puppets: his face is perfectly pinched and sallow, his hair as wilted as a dying flower. However, he struggles to master the tone and pace of Poe’s language, which prevents the audience from becoming enraptured by the tale of the asylum. The Visitor’s curiosity leads him to investigate the asylum’s famous “soothing method,” according to which the keepers of the asylum never contradict the patients, but reinforce their delusions as though real.
Upon entering the asylum, the Visitor meets a diverse group of eccentrics, led by Monsier Maillard. In the role, Zen Masley booms impressively, projecting through a mop of a mustache. He leads a group of perversely strange characters, which include three puppets. The cast is jubilant and frenzied in its madness, but the reason for using puppets is unclear. Certainly it is easier to make a puppet look like a frog or a teapot than it is a man, but there is greater humor in the perception of the madman that he is a teapot, and in the sane man’s perception that he should not contradict him.
For all of his probing, the Visitor is rewarded with a grand show. Costume designer Susan Lasanta Gittens has vividly imagined the gaudy accoutrements described by Poe—beads, feathers, and bad makeup abound, and the characters prance about like children that have raided mother's vanity. Amidst this prancing, the cast trades the spotlight in a series of monologues that would alarm any sane visitor and prompt a hasty retreat. Yet the visitor stays, hypnotized by Maillard. However, screams from within the asylum disrupt the dinner, and arouse the Visitor from his stupor. He again asks questions and uncovers the frightening revelation about Maillard and his cohorts.
In the case of this show, the conceits of storytelling do not necessarily translate well to the stage. It is deflating that the narrator is the character who is ever seeking, and being sought by, the terrible and the bizarre. Since he is telling the story in the past tense, we know that whatever harm or misfortune befell him was not so horrible. With this knowledge, the story becomes, rather than horrific, a satire of treatments for psychosis in the 1800s, as well as a commentary upon social understanding of psychoses. The problem is that Poe’s talents as a comedian and satirist are not as brilliant as his ability to haunt, and this production does little to make the story more compelling.