In Robert Wiene’s 1920 expressionist film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the titular scientist conducts a sinister experiment: Testing the drowsing mind’s malleability, he dispatches a sleepwalking patient to commit murder.
Director Rubén Polendo sees this story as a parable about acting. In Dr. C (or How I Learned to Act in Eight Steps), eight snoozing performers—roused by a harsh clinical voiceover—become lab rats for a bizarre theatrical experiment. While twitching through choreography derived from the film’s jumping frames and outsize gestures, they obediently sing the theories of eight theatrical thinkers, from Aristotle to Anne Bogart. That’s right: sing. Billed as an “opera,” Dr. C puts philosophy to music.
This wacky approach yields some insights. Sacral-sounding melodies heighten Stanislavski’s spiritual fervor; the company dances Appia’s plea for a physical theater. Dr. Caligari’s hypnotic influence evokes these theorists’ guru-like hold on acolytes, but too often the acting lessons veer into cliché: Artaud’s screeds elicit screaming and writhing; Brecht’s injunctions devolve into cabaret grotesquerie. Many episodes strain patience with droning duration, their repetitive scores and movements blurring thinkers together.
Under studio pressure, the original Caligari‘s creative team resorted to a pat ending: The creepy fable was a lunatic’s hallucination. Polendo’s grating sci-fi frame similarly limits the scope of Dr. C‘s investigation. The piece’s musical escapade through theater history’s most searching provocations leaves us largely with bullet points and boredom.