Buntport's Horror: The Transformation is based on Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland, a novel published in 1798, and inspired by the true story of a farmer who killed his wife and children. It's not done as a period piece, though the clothes and setting aren't strictly modern, either: At one point, a character puts a record on a turntable, which would set the date somewhere in the mid-twentieth century. A lot of the dialogue retains Wieland's eighteenth-century focus and rhythm.
Although the acting is somewhat naturalistic -- at least in spots -- the production has many stylized elements. The actors all wear gloves; their eyes are heavily shadowed. Two children are represented by ingeniously-constructed puppets. There are long periods during which we, the audience, sit in absolute darkness, and often the theatre is filled with odd and insinuating sounds: Music. Panting. A low, breastbone-vibrating rumble. Footsteps. Instrumental shrieks.
It's difficult to scare audiences these days, with films routinely providing rivers of blood, grotesquely splintered bodies and realistic brain splatters. It's particularly hard for a theater group that lacks the technical resources of, say, the Denver Center. In addition, the plot of Brown's novel doesn't entirely hold together, and concepts that would have spooked people a couple of centuries ago -- ventriloquism, the practice of magic, spontaneous combustion -- don't have the same impact today.
The play's ending left me confused. It wasn't just that I couldn't figure out whether the impulse that drove the protagonist, Theodore, to murder was supernatural or only the workings of his own religion-maddened mind -- that ambiguity was obviously intended. It was that I wasn't sure what had actually happened until I got home later and Googled: "Brown. Wieland. Plot."
Despite this, the Buntport production does succeed, both as an extended rumination on the first Gothic novel ever published in America, and in creating a real sense of fear and unease in a contemporary audience.
Theodore is forever talking with the members of his family -- his sister Clara and her friend Henry, his wife Catherine and their two children -- about science and belief and the role of God in human affairs. Those who lack belief, the play suggests, also lack any reason for action in the world. But those who do believe risk illusion, illogic and even madness.
Theodore and Clara's father was a highly religious man who built a temple where he worshiped alone. One night he was found there, naked, bruised and burned; the play suggests that he had spontaneously burst into flame. This man's own father had thrown himself over a cliff. Somehow, these deaths seem to pre-ordain Theodore's murders. Buntport communicates all this in a series of scenes that move backwards and forwards in time and are punctuated by flashes of light, periods of darkness and retina-teasing images.
The violence, when it finally comes, is well-staged and -acted, but also almost anti-climactic, far less troubling than the thoughts and feelings the production has already aroused. We know that children are killed by parents who think they've heard voices far more often than most of us like to think about; we know also that these horrors are ultimately incomprehensible. Yet I couldn't help wanting more coherence between the evening's earlier hints and portents and the actual murders, and a greater understanding of the link between Theodore's religiosity and his killings.
There are elements I just didn't get. Whenever someone on stage performs -- a child dances for the adults or the magician, Carwin, shows off his tricks -- the other actors turn and stare at the audience, instead of watching the performer. Why? And the phrase "When people come to look at something, there must be something there for them to look at" is frequently repeated, but I have no idea what it's supposed to mean.
Yet many of the tricks are brilliant. At one point, Carwin magically creates a pretty, oval image of a garden against the back wall. When Clara approaches to examine itwell, you'll have to see for yourself. And although the moment doesn't quite work, I was impressed by the conceptual daring of having the two children play with dolls representing their grandparents, so that what you see is puppets manipulating smaller puppets. The puppet-children are eerily effective throughout. Kate, the little girl, says several times that she's afraid monsters will suck out her life force through her fingertips. At the moment when she's about to be killed, the Kate-puppet stretches out her arms to her murderous father. As she does, you see the white gloved hands of the puppeteer above her. It's a moment of genuine sadness.
Horror: The Transformation places us inside a disintegrating mind. It creates the sense of dislocation you feel waking up in the gray, predawn light, utterly alone, divorced from the habits and distractions that steady your daylight hours, aware that death has stepped one increment nearer and that if your mind starts sliding into oblivion, there's nothing in the wide, empty universe to stop it.
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