Almost a Phantom: Yellow Sign Theatre's "From A Black Egg" pays homage to early horror films
By By Maura Callahan
Oct 27, 2015 | 12:18 PM
German Expressionism is defined by the sense of uncertainty and loss that characterized its time between two world wars. While rejecting reality in favor of the fantastical worlds of the horror and sci-fi genres, German Expressionists explored the apprehension and disillusionment of soon-to-be-Nazi Germany. (The film critic and historian Siegfried Kracauer famously suggested that the 1921 film "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" predicted Hitler's control of the German people.) The Weimar period's avant-garde tapped into the insanity and fear of imminent destruction that, nearly a century later, still quakes beneath modern civilization.
Yellow Sign Theatre's resident artist Aaron Travis pays tribute to the silent films of German Expressionism in his new play "From A Black Egg." The story of two newlyweds, separated by death when Deszo (Jeffrey L. Gangwisch) is sent to die in the Hungarian-Czech war, evolves into a darkly erotic horror tale. Unable to cope with her grief, Cili (Jess Rivera) visits the witch doctor Madame Tzaganas (June Keating), who gives her a black egg that, with bizarre, ritualistic nurture, would hatch the physical form of her late husband. In a somewhat unsettling mother-son romance, Cili adoringly trains the creature, named Liderc, to adopt human behavior, while Liderc pleasures her incessantly—even under the table at a dinner party.
In the spirit of pre-talkies, the actors are silent and perform to an original score by Boston art-rock group Bent Knee (who played the score live for the Oct. 23 and 24 performances). The band's piercing strings and witchy, almost metal keys naturally fit the play's folk-horror aesthetic and give voice to the characters' emotions and horniness.
Thematically, the plot speaks to tensions that grind between passion and fear, but Travis' story is not the thing to take away here. And really, neither were most of the stories depicted in many German Expressionist classics; at least, not compared to the immense power of the films' design. Like the paintings of the era, the films rejected Western aesthetics—above all, the demand for images to be pleasing to the eye. Why create pleasant images for an unpleasant world? Through bizarre, claustrophobic sets and alien makeup and costume design, these films used the macabre to transport audiences to new spaces, and at the same time reflect the underlying anxieties of the world they inhabit.
"Black Egg" hits some of these eerie notes. The whole play (save for the set changes) is rendered appropriately monochromatic through Mason Ross' lighting, in which single-color lights wash over the stage, alternating hue between scenes. Projected above the stage, the inky, black-and-white animations and intertitles by Gangwisch and Emily Ward illustrate certain scenes omitted by the actors. The characters' dialogue—which is used sparingly—appears in gooey, quasi-psychedelic lettering, floating like microorganisms in a petri dish, reminiscent of the scene in "Nosferatu" where Dr. Van Helsing observes an eerie, tentacled polyp under a microscope: "transparent, without substance, almost a phantom." The projections are the most mesmerizing parts of the play and breathe a sense of uncanniness onto the frozen stage below.
As Cili, Jess Rivera echoes the wide-eyed fear of the original scream queens, and as Deszo and his egg-born clone, Gangwisch looks like he was built of German Expressionist design: He has the tall, lanky figure of "Nosferatu's" Count Orlok or "Caligari's" Cesare the somnambulist. They move across the stage and wrap around each other at the slow, slithering pace of actors in early horror films. Likewise, Lori Travis and Vii Lee's makeup recreates the ghostly, high-contrast looks of the era, and effectively transforms Cili's character as she becomes increasingly consumed by lust for her demonic egg man.
The production features nearly all of the qualities associated with German Expressionist cinema, but in a play inspired by a genre known for its innovative set designs (many of which were done under tight budgets), Mike Jancz and Emily Ward's set feels like an overlooked opportunity. Between scenes, the stagehands move around a few basic furniture pieces and unroll different backgrounds, each painted starkly with the loose, grisly brush strokes of German Expressionist paintings, sans the color and crowded compositions. The nod to such Die Brücke painters as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner is clear, and the warped angles quietly echo the constructed shapes in "Caligari," but for the most part, the connection to the film sets of the time is all but absent. Yellow Sign is limited to a small stage, but a tight, claustrophobic set would actually be an effective way recreate the anxiety-inducing design of original German Expressionist films, which embraced their artificiality. In "Caligari," for instance, the fantastical village created by Expressionist painters Walter Reimann and Hermann Warm plays as essential a role as any of the actors, as does Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut, and Karl Vollbrecht's hyper-industrial cityscape in "Metropolis."
Though the set itself takes the backseat, the set changes are treated as scenes in the play. As stagehands, Jancz, Dave Marcoot, Greg Gliterati, and producer/character, improv, and movement coach Craig Coletta play a film crew setting up the next scene, some mumbling and grunting in German, another barking orders in cliche Hollywood-director vernacular. These scenes break away from the play's fantasy world, and in turn the American presence creates a new storyline in which German Expressionism is usurped by Americans—all of which might be interesting if the total duration of the many transitions didn't feel like nearly half the performance. As they are, the set changes are a cumbersome justification of the play's silent style, which really doesn't need to be justified. Even though the films of Fritz Lang, FW Murnau, and Robert Wiene were silent out of necessity, silence in films—and plays—functions to direct greater attention to the design, which today is all too frequently overlooked for dialogue.
Today, theater often lusts for cinematic spectacle—a tendency that most small theaters like Yellow Sign resist, in part out of necessity. Ironically, though they made significant aesthetic and thematic departures, early films like German Expressionist cinema emulated theater. With a season devoted to drawing inspiration from cinema, the Yellow Sign openly acknowledges this symbiosis, and with its current production modeled on German Expressionism, it points to our culture's undying affinity with the avant-garde and the macabre. Spectacle tends to age, but, at its core, horror survives.
"From A Black Egg" runs through Nov. 7 at Yellow Sign Theatre. For more information, visit facebook.com/TheYellowSignTheatre.