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Symphonie Fantastique

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

In the Playbill for Symphonie Fantastique at the newly christened Dodger Stages, Basil Twist is credited as many things: puppeteer, director, designer. Yet perhaps the word defining his most apropos role in assembling this dazzling if less than completely satisfying show is missing: choreographer.

If the puppet creations that populate the 1000-gallon water tank at the center of the show can be said to do anything, it's dance. As each of the five movements of Hector Berlioz's 1830 composition are played (the recording used is a Sony Classical recording performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra under the baton of Eugene Ormandy), Twist's creations swim, fly, dance, revel, and even explode in the hot-blooded beauty of Berlioz's coruscating music, almost always to breathtaking, colorful effect.

There are some 180 puppets in all, of every imaginable size and description, from tiny balls of fabric allowed to spread out in the water like comets to enormous poles that rotate, march, and change color with razor sharp precision; from vast feather-like constructs moving alone to multiple two-dimensional pieces dancing a humorous quadrille. Moments of intense, simple beauty combine with scenes of extravagantly controlled chaos, with Berlioz's music the powerful guiding force at the center of it all. Even the tank's air bubbles are tightly, intensely controlled to appear only when deemed musically necessary.

Whether you find much of a plot in Twist's balletic presentation, however, will highly depend on your own familiarity and attachment to the source material. Berlioz's composition was inspired by his intense desire for an Irish actress named Harriet Smithson, and of each of his movements chronicles another aspect of his feelings for her, which Twist then translates into his own unique visual vernacular. Though certain "characters" do emerge and reappear time and again, their appearances are often thematic rather than specific. This all results in what may be an unusual spectacle, but is a spectacle nonetheless.

Even so, it's one that often struggles to be involving in its current environs. Symphonie Fantastique premiered downtown at HERE in 1998, in a smaller space and with everything roughly half the size of what's present in the current production. This strips from the show a level or two of intimacy. In addition, the way Andrew Hill has lit the water tank (from every imaginable angle) while leaving the audience lost in resolute blackness, it's sometimes hard not to forget you're not watching a PBS documentary about underwater life on a large flat-screen television.

At the end of the evening, however, when the show's puppeteers - five of Twist, Matthew Acheson, Oliver Dalzell, Sophia Michahelles, Lake Simons, and Kevin Taylor - emerge from behind the scenes for their curtain calls, the show takes on another new dimension. Each is wearing a wetsuit, looks exhausted, and is soaked from head to toe; it's at this moment you become most acutely aware of the human contribution to the show, a key element that all too often seems otherwise missing from the rest of the performance.

Audience members are allowed - even encouraged - to visit the backstage area after the show to see how everything is put together. This quick tour should really be seen as an integral part of the experience: It doesn't spoil the magic as much as it enhances it, bringing everything down to a more easily assimilable level. Daring patrons may also want to consider purchasing the tickets that allow them to sit backstage and watch the creation of the show from a very different - yet no less valid - perspective.

If you might miss a little of the complete effect of the final creation - video monitors backstage do, however, apparently allow those viewing the show there to follow the action as soon from out front - it still seems that that might well be the ideal way to experience this show. Berlioz's music is fiery, passionate, and compelling, but ultimately personal, and Symphonie Fantastique is at its best when it matches as many of these qualities as possible.

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Symphonie Fantastique
Through October 31
Running Time: 1 hour with no intermission
Dodger Stages / Theater 5, 340 West 50th Street Between 8th and 9th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge