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    Vamp with camp

    An all-puppet version of "Nosferatu" does wondrous feats with puppetry but its comedy, though funny, makes too easy a target out of the pioneering 1922 film it parodies.


    "Nosferatu" is a visually stunning theatrical staging — using puppets and projections — of the seminal 1922 film by FW Murnau. Beautiful as it is, though, there's little substance behind the spectacle.

    Writer, director and designer Deborah Hertzberg employs three interlocking panels of scrim to create the impression of a movie screen. Behind the central panel, fairly traditional rod-puppets perform the bulk of the action. On the flanking panels, flickering images and words, along with the occasional shadow puppet, fade in and out of view, simulating the look and feel of early film. The puppets themselves are smartly designed to be slightly grotesque but unmistakeably expressive. They are painted in shades of white and gray, with black clothing, to enhance the black-and-white film effect. Each puppet exposes to view one bone-white puppeteer hand to allow them to handle objects and to further stylize the appearance of the "actors." The projections are mostly tinted a kind of sepia, and include intertitles, cityscapes and blank backdrops of light for silhouetted characters and shadow-puppet bats. Herzberg gorgeously captures Muranau's highly stylized expressionist aesthetic but then reduces it to camp melodrama by playing nearly every moment for laughs.

    Written and directed by: Deborah Hertzberg.
    Cast: (puppeteers) Tony Ciroldes, Ceili Clemens, Michael Latini, Russell Tucker.
    (projections) Jennifer Barnhart, Dan Hartzberg, Michael Latini, Russell Tucker, Michael Shupbach.
    Puppet Construction: Heather Asch, Tony Chiroldes, Ceili Clemens, Michael Latini, Russell Tucker, Bill Hubner, Marc Petrosino, Jean Marie Keevins, Deborah Hertzberg.
    Cherry Lane Theatre
    38 Commerce St., off 7th Ave. So.
    Aug. 8-24, 2003

    Judged within the context of its ambitions, this "Nosferatu" succeeds brilliantly, with a variety of innovative, deceptively simple techniques. The extraordinary level of craft on display is a reminder that we seem to be experiencing a renaissance of sorts in puppetry, or at least in the appreciation of puppetry as a legitimate and welcome contribution to theater. And, to be fair, the production sets out to be funny and succeeds there as well. There was lots to chuckle at, including the book about vampires that Herzberg allows to fly like a bat and become, literally, a kind of deus-ex-library. The book swoops about and imparts absurdly relevant and timely information for the characters whenever they're confused or unsettled. The puppeteers do a wonderful job capturing the timing and the extreme physical reactions of silent film actors, which also makes for some funny moments.

    To see so much polished craft, though, employed to do little other than make fun of (albeit affectionately) another piece of art, seems a waste. While it's often said that comedy is more difficult than drama, "melodrama" is an awfully easy target for parody. Both "Nosferatu" and Hertzberg's obvious talents and skills, deserve more than just a spoof.

    AUGUST 19, 2003

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