Edgar Allen Poe, The Humorist, is Staged With Puppet Theater

“The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” Edgar Allan Poe’s classic story of an insane asylum in southern France, has been adapted for the stage by Candice Burridge, David Zen Mansley and Jon Vomit and will be directed by Candice Burridge in Charles Adams-meets-Julie Taymor style, with dark, gothic imagery, a variety of shadow puppets, hand puppets and music by John Vomit of Strange Walls, a Goth Rock band. Theater for the New City, Manhattan, will present the work April 10 to 27, 2008.

Poe’s reputation as a humorist stands secure with “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.” A traveler to southern France is invited to a lavish dinner in an insane asylum where a quirky staff is famous for it’s “system of soothing,” which avoids punishment and seldom applies confinement to the patients, allowing them to dress normally and wander the grounds at will. The attendants “humor” their patients by never contradicting their fantasies or hallucinations. Rather, if a man thought he was a chicken, doctors would treat him as a chicken, giving him corn to eat. The method, however, is about to be forsaken in favor of “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.”

Dan Drogyny, David Zen Mansley, Ilana Landecker.
LR: Dan Drogyny, David Zen Mansley, Ilana Landecker. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

During an uncomfortable dinner, the staff regale the traveler with stories about patients they have known, like a lady who thought herself a chicken, a man a teapot, another a pumpkin, another a snuff box, etc. Amid this, Monsieur Maillard, the head of the institution, shares a remembrance of a lunatic who had once excited his fellows to rebellion. Suddenly the dinner is suddenly broken up and the asylum taken over by intruders whose feather coverings make them seem like orangutans. The attendants begin to act out in lunatic behaviors like the inmates they have been describing. It becomes clear that the head of the institution, Maillard himself, had lost his reason but not his wits, leading his patients into mischief. The lunatics had taken over the asylum, with the staff tarred and feathered.

Director Candice Burridge describes her approach as “everything cram packed with art,” intending to provide “a more lush experience of where theater is” and citing as her influences the plays of Julie Taymor and the films of Tim Burton. She also cites a debt to German Expressionist films, upon which the play’s shadow puppets will be inspired. She emphasizes that the story is a comedy. The principal characters will be “Adams Family”-ish and she will use puppets for the play’s more whimsical characters. Hand puppets will be designed by David Zen Mansley and shadow puppets will be by Burridge. Experimental puppet lighting is by Jason Sturm. The dialogue of the play is as true to Poe’s original as Burridge and David Zen Mansley could make it.

Ms. Burridge was born in Lafayette, Louisiana and received her BA in Puppetry from the University of Connecticut in 2003. She performs at the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theater in Central Park as a puppeteer and is currently running “Pippi.” At Theater for the New City, she is part of the regular production crew and is mask designer for Crystal Field in her annual Street Theater productions and “The Further Adventures of Uncle Wiggly: Windblown Visitors.”

David Zen Mansley is both an actor and puppet designer. He has built miniatures for such films as Coppola’s “Dracula,” Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood” and “X2 – X-Men United.” In 1987, he built and designed the Pretorious “Resonator” for Stuart Gordon’s film of H.P. Lovecraft’s “From Beyond.” He was part of Robert Skotak’s Oscar winning FX team for the “Judgement Day” nightmare scene in Jame’s Cameron’s “Terminator 2. In 1988, he was named LA Weekly’s Production Design of the Year for “Dracula Tyrannus” at the Globe Playhouse. As an actor, he has appeared in close to a hundred plays in roles from Claudius in “Hamlet” to Preacher Haggler in “Dark of the Moon.” In 1990, he directed and played the lead in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” at the Celtic Arts Center in Hollywood for two and a half months and received a glowing review in the LA Times. He is the voice of the villain Agent Bishop on Saturday morning’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” where he also plays the demonic sorcerer Savanti Romero, Rat King and Kon, the Ninjitsu master of Spirit. In the upcoming animated series “Speed Racer,” set to air this Spring, he plays the snide Professor Aniskov and the comedic henchman, Stan.

Jon Vomit grew up in Portland, Maine and moved to New York City eight years ago. He created Strange Walls, a band in the New York Post-Punk scene. Since then he has composed scores for over a dozen underground films.

Shadow puppet design is by Candice Burridge; mask design is by Candice Burridge; hand puppet design is by Assistant Director David Zen Mansley; Production Manager is Adrian Gallard; set design is by Mark Marcante, lighting design is by Jason Sturm, costume design is by Susan Gittens; sound design is by Roy Chang; music is by John Vomit/Strange Walls. The actors are Performed by Dan Drogyny, David Zen Mansley, Ilana Landecker, Michael Sanders, Lissa Moira, Charles Battersby, Ellen Steier, T. Scott Lilly and William Abbott.

Some of the production’s images are displayed on http://www.myspace.com/systemofdrtarr.

Performances are April 10 to 27 at Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue (at East Tenth Street), Manhattan. Tickets are $12. The production schedule is: Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 3:00 pm. The box office number is (212) 254-1109. Online ticketing is available at: www.theaterforthenewcity.net.

Jonathan Slaff writes on cultural events from the brainy, the edgy and the good. He helps us keep ahead of the curve in the world of the arts and culture.