The Fortune Teller
nytheatre.com review by J Jordan
October 20, 2006
I don't like puppets. They upset me in the same way clowns upset others. As a child I recall, much like one of the characters in The Fortune Teller, being affected negatively by a performance of the violent Punch and Judy, wherein I formed a negative opinion of puppetry in general. Thus it was with much apprehension that I descended into the Dorothy B. Williams Theatre at HERE to see The Fortune Teller, a marionette play by Erik Sanko. I noted nervously that this is Sanko's first foray into the world of puppetry.
My reservations were dispelled when I entered the theatre and was confronted with a creepy mansion. If you've ever been to the Dorothy B., its description as "intimate" is simply a euphemism for being tiny. Size aside, I found myself seated a few rows back from a magnificent and well-lit white mansion, the kind where bad things happen. As the lights faded to black I felt like I was embarking on a journey with Agatha Christie rather than attending a puppet show. In a way, I was.
The plot of The Fortune Teller revolves around seven "unsavory characters," each representing one of the seven deadly sins, who are invited to the former home of Nathaniel Ax, a mysterious and now-deceased millionaire, for a reading of his will. These dislikable people include the Hunter, whose aforementioned dislike of Punch and Judy leads him to a life of killing animals; the Chef, an obese, sloppy man who doesn't like anything he can't eat; the stereotypically miserly Banker; the jealous Optometrist who is the best-equipped of peeping toms; and the Ventriloquist whose truly creepy dummy is essentially a child's skeleton, to name a few.
Each of the seven guests assumes he stands to gain some sort of inheritance from the millionaire, even though none of them knew him in life. They are attended by a rail-thin butler, and their story is narrated by the main character, Mr. Ax's attorney, who is, unlike the other puppets, represented inexplicably if adorably by an albino alligator. Once introductions are made, the title character in the play, the fortune teller, magically appears from out of nowhere to one by one prognosticate their futures. Rather than offering the seven sordid guests part of Mr. Ax's inheritance, the fortune teller reveals harsh (and I can assure you, to the audience humorous) consequences to the sins of which each is guilty and have unwittingly linked each character to Mr. Ax's demise.
To tell you anything more about the story would be to spoil the piece's fun, witty moments, of which there are many. The story, which is really more a series of vignettes, is predictable and serves merely as a vehicle for the design. Let's start with the music, composed by Danny Elfman and Erik Sanko. It's fun and creepy and poignant, and blends effortlessly with the rest of Andy Green's smart sound design.
I can't even begin to describe the detail and thought put into the design of the mansion and its interior, which serves as not only the central location of the action but also showcases the fortune teller's revelations. In a word, it is unbelievable. Selin Maner, the architectural designer; Matthew Acheson, who provided the mansion construction; and Jessica Grindstaff, who curated the team of volunteer artists to design the interiors, have managed to create a real world within a dollhouse of a space, from tiny details such as the chandelier to the overall creepiness of the world the mansion represents. Frankly, this show could be seen and appreciated for the mansion alone.
That said, the real reason you should see this show is the puppets. I was enraptured by what I saw taking place on stage. The design of the puppets is magnificent, each of them embodying their character as easily as a live person. The puppets' costumes are precise but not overstated, resulting in the puppets settling into the world created for them perfectly. Occasionally I saw a hand or two orchestrating strings accidentally appear, but it didn't cause me to lose focus. If anything, it reminded me how hard puppeteering is, and what skill is required of Matthew Acheson, Liam Hurley, Erik Sanko, and Randall Whittinghill to breathe believable life into inanimate objects. These beautiful, lovingly designed puppets are a far cry from Punch and Judy.
The narration, by Gavin Friday, is nearly flawless and pre-recorded along with the music, narration, and well-chosen sound effects. The lighting design by Andrew Hill is clear and unobtrusive, supporting the action quite well.
My only regret is that I didn't sit closer to the stage. During the final coup-de-grace scene, my co-viewer and I missed the subtle climax simply because we couldn't see it. As mentioned before, however, the story isn't the central focus of the piece—it's about everything else. Just make sure you sit in the first few rows, preferably in the middle, if you want to hone in on what happens to the fortune teller.
Regardless, The Fortune Teller is easily more interesting, entertaining, and enjoyable than anything I've seen in a movie theater all year. That's saying a lot for someone who, until last Friday night, thought she didn't really like puppets.