When I drew the assignment to review the Silent Theatre Company's Carnival Nocturne, as usual, I visited the company's website and was immediately struck by both their tag line--"Creating a universal language one gesture at a time"--and a snippet from their mission statement: "Our desire is to present each story according to the style most true to the subject matter." These statements, combined with the emphasis on striking concept sketches and other visuals on the show's page, prepped me for a quite welcome evening of nontraditional theater.
Upon picking up my press packet on opening night, I was then somewhat surprised to find that the production press release seemed designed to downplay anything that might suggest an eclectic approach. In other words, no matter how obvious it should have been to me from the company's name, I am blaming the press packet for the fact that I was not expecting an entirely silent performance. Fortunately for me, going into this excellent performance somewhat . . . under-informed . . . didn't matter a bit.
Whatever its other failings, the press release is spot-on when it evokes Edward Gorey and Tim Burton. The visual design of Carnival Nocturne is grotesquely beautiful, from the stuttering light effect that suggests film feeding through a projector that's seen better days to the make-up effect that creates wrinkles so deep that they have their own vanishing point, the production is just stunning. If I were the complaining sort, I would say there simply isn't enough time in one viewing to gobble up all the eye candy.
The superb lighting design by Dan Tamarkin, exquisite make-up by Stephanie Schultz, and the costume design by Barb Staples of Limebarb.com (insert heartfelt superlative here) are almost criminally upstaged by the cast. Being a piece without dialogue (save some sparse pre-recorded narration), the burden of storytelling falls on the actors' physicality.
In a cast of 13, one would expect some differences in ability that could easily derail the whole undertaking. There's precious little evidence of that here, though: I might say there's good and there's better, but that would be solely to give myself the opportunity to single out the performances of Taylor Bibat and Lindsey Marks as the Siamese twins. Their eerie, jerkily graceful body work will surely be giving me nightmares for weeks to come.
Lest this review venture into too-good-to-be true territory, I admit the production is not perfect. For all the company's emphasis on storytelling, the Gillian Hasting's story is not especially original or compelling. And despite the tremendous ability of the cast and obviously strong direction by Tonika Todorova, there are elements of the story that weren't particularly clear.
On a more practical note, although the live band is very good and the music greatly enhances the storytelling, the band was sometimes too loud for the space. In particular, the recorded narrative (a distorted voice that unfortunately brought Jigsaw to mind) was often inaudible over the music. And in general after 90 minutes of relentless piano that kept almost-but-not-quite breaking the James Bond theme, I had a strong desire to introduce composer/pianist David Taylor to the damper pedal and perhaps a couple of pillows.
In fairness to the band, I think some of the sound problems, as well as the rare blocking mishaps are inherent to the Storefront Theater's space. In my admittedly limited experience as an audience member there, I've yet to attend a production that hasn't suffered from sound and staging problems. The Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs has indubitably done a great thing in making such a high-profile location available to smaller groups, but I get the sense that the space is not without its problems.