The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether
nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
April 12, 2008
I can get into something that is over the top for the sake of being over the top. Subtleties can be brushed aside and we can all agree to have fun. In the case of this adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's dark and ironic satire of 19th century life in an insane asylum there is a lot of fun to be had, though it is a very peculiar and maybe even aloof sort of fun.
The story is set in an asylum in the south of France. An unnamed traveler decides to visit the asylum in order to see the "soothing system" in operation. This revolutionary new system gives encouragement to the patient's fantasies and even allows them to wander freely around the grounds. Maillard, the director of the facility, invites him to dinner which turns out to be as extravagant as its guests are eccentric. They are dressed in bizarre clothes and seem to be having more fun than they should be. When the traveler inquires about the soothing system Maillard explains that they have done away with it and are now working with a new system engineered by a Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether. To the very end, the traveler is dismayed because he can find no reference to their work.
The most striking and certainly the most commendable part of this production is its design. The set (Mark Marcante) is very detailed and cleverly designed to spin around and open up. The costumes (Susan Lasanta Gittens) are beautiful and strange. They are instrumental in creating the world of the play. The puppet designs (Candice Burridge and Zen Mansley) are stunning. Burridge's shadow puppets look gothic and cartoonish while Mansley's larger hand puppets have faces like human monsters.
Burridge is also the production's director. I really enjoyed her bold choices and it seemed to me that everyone worked very well together and that gives the production a lot of character. Still, some choices, such as having the traveler character portrayed like a spaced-out five-year-old, left me without an anchor in all this insanity. There is no "straight man" from which to distinguish between the sane and insane. What I heard of Jon Vomit's original score is good but it is very underplayed.
The puppet animation is playful but in a carefree, childlike manner. The shadow puppets' limbs, for example, flail about and they knock into each other. I felt as if the atmosphere for this story would have been better set had the animation been taken a bit more seriously. The puppeteers, Burridge and Micha Lazare, are costumed characters on stage with their puppets and other actors sometimes help working the puppets, but the timing on all this movement is not very well coordinated.
Zen Mansley plays Maillard like a dictator who has lost his mind. He really drives this show forward. Mansley also does some great voiceover work for the puppet's dialogue. Dan Drogynous as the traveler portrays one of the oddest characters I've ever seen on stage and yet there was something about it that seemed familiar. I enjoyed all the performances. The cast appeared to be having fun. And so did I for the most part.
The production is packed with vision and creativity. I liked the way in which the story's irony is obscured by the campy treatment of it, but still I felt as if that fact also obscured the dark, gothic nature of it. However, if you're in the mood for a strange interlude, this show may be your bag.