The Washington Post

Basil Twist’s ‘Symphonie Fantastique’ is spectacle of puppetry and fun

It’s hard to explain the magical pull of fabric and light in Basil Twist’s puppetry spectacle “Symphonie Fantastique” except in terms of sheer charm. This clever blend of color and movement unfolds, floats and swirls in a 1,000-gallon water tank neatly disguised as a small puppet stage.

The production is anything but simple, as Twist cheerfully reveals after the show at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center (through Saturday and part of the citywide Twist festival). Audience members are allowed to pass backstage as they exit, and the platforms, rigging and props are extensive. You can’t quite believe how Twist and his four fellow puppeteers (in wet suits) manipulate it all for an hour.

The performance is Twist’s response to Berlioz’s 1830 symphony, here played live by pianist Christopher O’Riley. The music was written to suggest episodes in an artist’s life, and there is a vague sense of quest and loneliness throughout, with the slow, ink-like drips and sudden, looming specters of the fourth movement clearly evoking a dramatic emotional descent.

Still, Twist doesn’t render the story literally. The picture frame stage behind O’Riley’s piano is populated by wave after wave of ingenious abstractions. Fabrics vaguely shaped like fish and eels glide and dart; bright blobs and stringy schools of who-knows-what suggest bottom-of-the-sea wonders. Rows of colorful tube-like things jostle back and forth, then disappear as the lights switch and black and white tubes take over the frame. The entrances of objects are often mesmerizing, and the transitions are amazing.

You can sometimes spot a slim wire guiding something gauzy, but you can’t begin to fathom the hands behind the perpetual movement. It’s all a lovely conjuring trick, a lively parade of near-cinematic images. The cascade is cued by Berlioz’s high romantic passion — O’Riley, always visible at the piano, provides supple atmosphere and ferocious drive — and Twist meets it with a showman’s flair.

Symphonie Fantastique

Saturday at Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, University Boulevard and Stadium Drive, College Park. 301-405-2787.

First Post byline, 1992; covering theater for the Post since 1999. His book "American Playwriting and the Anti-Political Prejudice" came out in 2014.



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