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Grant Golden Review: Freud and the Sandman

THE BASICS:  E T A Hoffman’s eerie, symbolist short story, as re-imagined and interpreted by Sigmund Freud.  Certainly not your everyday theatrical fare!  The New Phoenix production, devised and directed by Robert Waterhouse (their Artistic Director), plays Thurs-Sat nights through October 3rd.  There are five humans in the cast, three of whom operate puppets designed by Michele Costa.  The show is very short, running slightly less than an hour, with no intermission.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  Sigmund Freud, father of psychoanalysis, retells, analyzes and interacts with the characters of Hoffman’s creepy, Poe-like tale.  In the story, Nathaniel, a young lover of hysterical bent, is obsessed by twin father figures–the evil Coppelius and good Coppola–who he fears are one and the same. These C’s are, in fact, jointly responsible for the creation of a pretty automaton, Olympia, who lures Nathaniel away from his perplexed betrothed, Klara.  It all ends badly for Nathaniel, as you may have guessed.  Waterhouse brings Freud into the act as a major character; the results are curious, at best.  We get a fair amount of philosophizing–words and their opposites having similar meanings, for example–but the inherent drama of the Hoffman story is completely lost.  It’s a weird muddle, and my guess is that it will please very few.

THE CAST:  Christian Branjes makes a most engaging Freud, and certainly looks the part.  The rest of the company is pretty much up-to-speed.  Three of them show considerable skill operating Costa’s puppets.  The puppets themselves were a big disappointment to me.  They are clever and elegantly crafted, but so small in size that they almost make a mockery of poor Nathaniel’s torment.  If ever there was a show that cried out for larger-than-life puppets, this is it!  And where are the disembodied hands, feet, eyeballs, and that telescoping penis we were promised in a pre-production press piece?  And why is Olympia, a character that could have been dynamite either in human hands, or as a puppet, been reduced to a mere dress-maker’s dummy here??

PRODUCTION VALUES:  On the plus side, the production has some haunting original music by Paul 

Kozlowski, and some handsome period costumes by Martha Rothkopf.  Waterhouse gets a lot from his small cast.  On the minus side, the set by Dyan O’Connell is neither aesthetic nor eerily expressionistic, and Franklin La Voie’s lighting is pedestrian in a show where it could have been spectacular. 

FINAL THOUGHTS:  I went to this production with high hopes, as the New Phoenix can sometimes do great things with the offbeat.  Sadly, FREUD AND THE SANDMAN promises much more than it delivers.  Caveat emptor!

RATING:  TWO BUFFALOS (out of five). 

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