Basil Twist’s Symphonie Fantastique, whose off-Broadway revival I reviewed for The Wall Street Journal back in September, closed on Sunday. To mark the occasion, Twist invited me to come see the show again–only this time from backstage. I immediately took him up on the offer, bringing Our Girl with me to Dodger Stages to see the final performance. It was an unforgettable spectacle, especially for someone as stagestruck as I am. I did my fair share of acting in high school and college, but for me the real romance of the theater was to be found backstage, not in the spotlight, so I jumped at the priceless opportunity to watch Twist’s puppeteers from the far side of the curtain.
If you’ve never seen Symphonie Fantastique, my Wall Street Journal review gives a fairly clear idea of what it looks like out front:
Like “The Bald Soprano,” it’s a theatrical magic act that all but defies explanation, if not description. To put it as simply as possible, “Symphonie Fantastique” is an abstract, wordless puppet show performed in a 1,000-gallon tank of water and accompanied by a recording of Hector Berlioz’s “Fantastic Symphony.” That doesn’t tell you much, does it? If anything, so straightforward a description is likely to be offputting, especially to the casual theatergoer who doesn’t much care for puppets in the first place, so I’ll try to flesh things out a bit.
What you see in “Symphonie Fantastique” is one wall of a shallow glass tank into which five wet-suited puppeteers dip and slosh 180 peculiar-looking objects, none of which even remotely resembles Charlie McCarthy. Inspired by the paintings of Wassily Kandinsky and Berlioz’s own program for the “Fantastic Symphony,” Mr. Twist uses this equipment to conjure up a bewitching string of complex scenes that unfold with the nagging compulsion of a love story (which is what Berlioz’s symphony is, more or less). The puppeteers are hidden from view by a black wall, and the tank, which looks rather like a flat-screen television, is lit so cunningly and colorfully that you soon become disoriented and surrender joyously to the illusions being created before your amazed eyes.
In the end, literal descriptions of what “happens” in “Symphonie Fantastique” must inevitably fall short of conveying its loony, inscrutable beauty. Metaphor is the only way to suggest its essence. I’ve now seen “Symphonie Fantastique” something like a half-dozen times, starting with its original off-off-Broadway production at the HERE Arts Center, and I described a previous incarnation as looking like “a cross between George Balanchine, Paul Klee and Chuck Jones.” If that sounds good to you, head for Dodger Stages and prepare to be entranced.
Seen from the other side of the wall, Twist’s inscrutable illusions looked and sounded more like a fistfight in a dark alley on a rainy night. Soggy puppets and props sailed drippingly through the air, the black-clad puppeteers grunted and cursed and howled along with Berlioz, and I sat quietly in a corner with my mouth hanging open, alternately thinking Oh, that’s how they do it!, I have the coolest job in the whole world, and Maybe I should have brought a raincoat (a towel was supplied, fortunately). Every once in a while I’d snatch a hasty glance at a TV monitor that showed what it looked like from the front of the house. What I saw there was beautiful, but what I saw with my unaided eyes seemed chaotic to the point of insanity, and I kept reminding myself that it wasn’t–that the deceptively wild tumult was in fact choreographed down to the last splash.
Here’s another thought that crossed my mind as I sat in the wings: might it be that live theater in all its endless varieties is the most unselfish of the art forms? When I played bass in my college orchestra, for instance, I participated completely in the musical experience as it was happening. I could hear the piece unfolding, and reveled in the multihued sound of the ensemble of which I was a part. But the gifted artisans who enacted Symphonie Fantastique at Dodger Stages saw nothing but a huge tank of water into which they stuck odd-shaped objects and sloshed them around. The visual experience thereby brought into being was reserved exclusively for the audience. The performers had to take it on faith.
Watching Twist’s puppeteers splash and curse and sing, I was reminded of George Balanchine’s famous remark that dancers, like angels, carry a message but do not themselves experience it. Of course they must experience something pleasurable–otherwise they wouldn’t keep doing it day after day–but they don’t get to see what we see, not even when they see themselves after the fact on film or videotape. The same goes for puppeteers, and for actors of all kinds. Theirs is the burden, ours the blessing.