REVIEW: Basil Twist's “Symphonie Fantastique”—dazzling and entrancing
“Hear the color. See the music.” That’s the tagline of “Symphonie Fantastique”, the enigmatic and roundly celebrated underwater puppet show created by MacArthur “genius” Basil Twist that is currently enjoying a now-extended, 12-week revival as part of HERE’s 25th anniversary season. I can’t think of a better description for this unique, dazzling, and entrancing theatrical encounter.
Inspired by and set to Hector Berlioz’s eponymous 1830 composition—an epic, five movement autobiographical meditation on the composer’s love obsession—now played live by virtuosic pianist Christopher O’Riley, Mr. Twist’s “stage” is an unlikely 1,000 gallon water tank in which the music vividly comes to life by a mélange of materials ranging from cuts of fabric to feathers, glitter, and foam tubes, all moving and swirling about, manipulated by five unseen puppeteers in ecstatic choreography. Bursts of air bubbles and perception-twisting employment of mirrors and blacklight (light design by Andrew Hill) enrich this trance-like aquatic dance exquisitely timed to Berlioz’s dynamic score, producing an effect at once whimsical and hallucinatory.
At first I was surprised by the number of children at the performance I attended. Atop the first movement, a chorus of not-so-whispered questions exploded throughout the intimate Dorothy B. Williams Theatre. Slowly at first, then seemingly altogether, they dissipated—not, I submit, because of a guardian’s “shhh!”, but more so due to the effect of the enveloping stage magic unfolding before us. Too often “grownups” can over-intellectualize avant garde artistic experiences for reputational fear of “not getting it”. These kids, however, easily submitted to the fantasia.
The young boy seated next to me silently sat on the literal edge of his chair, eyes transfixed on the tank for the entire 55 minute performance. I admit, at first I was not sure what was happening in front of me. Then, perhaps taking a subliminal cue from the children surrounding me, I, too, submitted to the experience and its unexpected bouts of enchantment and beauty.
Mr. Twist, who today is the nation’s foremost puppeteer operating on the cutting-edge of the medium, got the idea to create “Symphonie Fantastique” more than twenty years ago when he passed a discarded fish tank on the street; instantly intrigued by the dormant artistic potential it possessed, he took the tank home, filled it with water, and began to experiment with different materials, seizing upon the alluring effect created as they move in water.
The result, his playful—dare I say genius—discovery, is now our great benefit. “Symphonie Fantastique” is that rarest of theatrical offerings: something you have never seen before. An exciting and original artistic achievement now thankfully brought back for audiences to enjoy once more following its 1998 debut and subsequent two-year run, if your interest is even only slightly piqued, I recommend you check it out.
Bottom Line: “Symphonie Fantastique”, MacArthur “genius” Basil Twist’s whimsical and hallucinatory 1998 underwater puppet show, is now receiving a dazzling and entrancing limited engagement revival as part of HERE’s 25th anniversary season. If you are looking to experience something you have never seen before, I highly recommend you check it out.
Dorothy B. Williams Theatre
145 Sixth Avenue
New York, NY 10003
Running Time: 55 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: April 4, 2018
Final Performance: extended to September 2, 2018