"Phantasmagoria", Charles Allis Art Museum
In late September, we got a curious flyer from the Charles Allis Art Museum here in Milwaukee, advertising "Phantasmagoria: A 19th-Century Gothic Variety Show," an "entertainment" to include supposedly summoning up the spirits of Mary Shelly, Friedrich Nietzche, and others, and dramatizations from their works. Intrigued, I ordered tickets for the performance of Monday, October 28th.
Georgie decided to "dress" for the occasion in Victorian style, so I did also, digging out my white tie and tails for an evening occaison. As it turned out, we were the only persons in the small audience (the house seats 85, and was filled) that did so, but we got many compliments on our outfits, as well as questions as to whether or not we were part of the show--.
The Allis Museum is the former home of Charles and Sarah Allis, of the Allis-Chalmers tractor and machinery company. The home has been immiaculately preserved with the family's furniture and paintings, and exists as a museum to house their collection of fine art and artifacts. The carriage house has been converted to a performance venue, used chiefly for screening art films, but tonight a small stage had been added, with platforms off to the sides for speakers and musicians. The stage was equipped with front and rear scrims that acted as front and rear projection screens.
The show opened with ominous music (harp, theremin, and recorded sounds), and a light display through stage fog, which got a bit thick, setting off the the smoke detector. We weren't initially sure if the strobe and honk were part of the show or not--. Fortunately, the fog soon lifted and we were treated to a series of effects based on the original magic lantern shows known as "Phantasmagoria" updated with modern technology. It began with the "talking head" illusion, wherein a moving picture of man's face is projected onto a blank bust, to cause the statue to speak. The image then changed to a full size image on the rear screen, which the actor then stepped through onto the stage. Introducing himself as Etienne Girard Robertson, the "inventor" of the Phantasmagoria, he gave an intertaining lecture on the history of the form, and segueing into galvanic experiments on animation of dead tissue (very informative) and eventually to "electric" animation of the dead through projected images, which was a typical magic lanter presentation of portraits of the famous dead (some crudely animated in a Terry Gilliam fashion) interspersed with pieces such as Fuseli's "The Nightmare." This continued until he "mistakenly" summoned up the spirit of Philidor, the "true" inventor of Phantasmagoria, who berated Robertson as a thief and charlatan. Once Philidor had ended his rant and departed, the spirit of Mary Shelly was invoked, "appearing" between the screens in a nice "electrical" effect. She took over the lectern and recounted the famous night of gohost stories leading up to her composition of "Frankenstein." When she came to to the part about Lord Byron reading from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Christabel," an actor did voice-over reading from the poem, while a dancer mime/danced the part of Christabel live in synch with the reading and a projected image of the uncanny Geraldine that moved from front to rear screen. I thought this was one of the better bits and very cleverly accomplished. When Shelley actually described the genesis of her novel, she was replaced as narrator by "the monster" who initially appeared only as shadow with eerie glowing yellow eyes. The monster read Chapter 15 of "Frankenstein", which is entirely in the monster's voice, recounting his disasterous attempt to make human contact with the family of the old blind man. This was "illustrated" by shadow puppets.
"Prometheus" was the theme of the presentation, (the subtitle of "Frankenstein" is "The Modern Prometheus") and the show stayed on theme in the scond half. The "genius" of this portion was Freidrich Nietsche, who lectured from "The Birth of Tragedy," which refers to the myth of Prometheus. The lecture was wrapped around portions of Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Prometheus Unbound," and "Prometheus Bound," by Aeschylus. The same actor portrayed Prometheus in each, and we found it all very interesting and entertaining. However, the piece de resistance was saved for last, a recreation of a dance ("Fire Dance") by Loie Fuller to "Prometheus: Poem of Fire" by Alexander Scriabin. Fuller was a pioneer of both modern dance and theatrical lighting techniques, and frequently combined her choreography with silk costumes illuminated by multi-coloured lighting of her own design. The piece is a swirling dance in which the performer's white draperies become a projection screen for a light show we would have called "psychedelic" in the 60's and which succeeded in invoking the "spirit" of flame, or sometimes spatial nebulosities. As Georgie said, this was worth the price of admission, alone.
The program did not break out the parts and players, but as far as I can determine matching pictures, James Sampson played Robertson and Nietsche, Flora Coker portrayed Mary Shelley and the Sea-Nymph's chorus, Brian Miracle Prometheus (and, I think, the monster), and Susie Carlson danced as Christabel and Loie Fuller. Paka Paka Lightshow contributed the lighting effects. Live music was by John Manno on harp, and Dale Kaminski on theremin. Directors Jerry Fortier, Robert Ragir, and Yehuda Yannay have collaborated on a number of multimedia productions since 2000, of which this is the most recent, but hopefully not the last.
All in all, a very entertaining and informative show. My criticisms would chiefly be too much fog, and too little thermin (vanished after the opening and never seen again--). Flora Coker's characterization of Mary Shelley lacked--well, character. She delivered her readings in a very matter of fact plain Milwaukee voice, as distingushed from Sampson who intoned with accent and characterization. This was disappointing in someone with her extensive experience. Also, her voice-overs as Gaia and the Sea-Nymphs were a bit unclear, but that may have been the fault of her microphone.
"Phantasmagoria" has now finished its run, but if it were to be revived, or a new version done in future, I would reccommend it.