If turning the most quiveringly emotional “program” music of the 19th century into serene abstraction seems like a willful act, then Basil Twist’s puppet rendering of Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique simply proves that willfulness is the artist’s joy. Nobody ever wanted to see Berlioz’s explanatory program for his giant, varicolored work taken literally, and Twist’s rendition, carried out by sticks and lights and swirls of rag in a thousand-gallon fish tank, finds such elegant, musically sensitive equivalents for the composer’s visionary leaps that you can hardly imagine the work being staged any other way.
When Twist’s work originally premiered at HERE in 1998, in a much smaller space and a tank half the size, a few of the visual elements seemed more sharply defined than they do on this newly expanded scale. The new Dodger Stage’s hyper-digital sound system, too, isn’t always kind to the recording being used, a subtly sensuous, old-school reading by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. But these are small quibbles next to the bigness of Twist’s achievement: He’s made viable the theater that visionary artists of a century ago—Scriabin, Kandinsky, Appia, Loie Fuller, Gordon Craig—only dreamed about. For those who want something less rarefied, this time around you can also buy seats to watch the puppeteers swelter in the dank space backstage throughout the hour-long performance.