Fort Worth — Does a show in which 90 percent of the spoken lines are stage directions sound boring? Granted the lines are given a slight poetic fluff, but generally, yes, Hip Pocket Theatre’s adaptation of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is boring.
For those unfamiliar with the story, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was a 1920 silent film made by Robert Wiene in the German Expressionist fashion. Note again, it’s a silent film.
Really though, if anyone is capable of pulling off an adaptation like this, it’s definitely Johnny Simons. In fact, he usually excels at this exact kind of project. Unfortunately, that isn’t quite the case this time.
The story is set mainly at a carnival in which the ominous Dr. Caligari (James Warila), a somnambulist, sets up shop. In the foreground is a Design For Living-type story of two men, Francis (Nick Pinelli) and Alan (Clint Niosi), sportingly vying for the affections of Jane (Christina Cranshaw). Soon enough, people start dying, and the prime suspect is the subject of Dr. Caligari’s somnambulism, the very goth and gaunt Cesare (Brian Cook).
Of the performances, everyone is in white face and often speak in melodramatically enchanted tones. The only relief from this is Cranshaw’s impassioned performance. She’s the only one who really transcends the limitations of the era and genre.
The story is a classic example of noir mystery storytelling. There are unexpected twists, turns, and misdirections that keep the audience interested, all of which are maintained in this stage adaptation.
So, Simons had a choice in adapting the film. First, stay silent—something Hip Pocket has effectively pulled off before. With the accompaniment of Michael H. Price, who wrote and performs the original score, they could have done it.
The other choice, though, is to speak. In the original film, there are dialogue cards, but that’s not enough to fill in all the gaps. So, Simons’ solution was to have the characters speak the action. The result is rather boring.
He does put some effort into making the narrative play-calling interesting by adding flourish to the language and varying who delivers lines. To that end, there are moments that work, but there are just as many that fall flat.
Overall the story is good, but the addition of so many words ends up, ironically, distracting from the action. There is a lot of potential that just doesn’t quite manifest and is left snoozing in its coffin, just like Cesare.