EmptyFreud Playhouse, UCLA, Westwood, Calif.
(Through Oct. 28)
Erik Sanko's "The Fortune Teller," presented by UCLA Live as part of its sixth International Theatre Festival, manages to be mildly amusing and annoyingly overhyped at the same time.
The skill of the team that handles Erik Sanko's extraordinary marionette creations is undoubted, and the theater's reconfiguration to seat only 120 spectators on the Freud Playhouse stage results in a potentially wonderful sense of intimacy. But on opening night, serious sightline issues resulted in lots of neck craning.
The stringed puppets themselves -- measuring one-third human scale, featuring some innovative construction, costumed in period garments made from worn vintage clothing, with a butler wearing Sanko's old tuxedo -- are as amazing as advertised, with an intentionally Edward Gorey look and feel that extends to the set, an impressive and flexible Edwardian mansion.
The other components of the presentation are not nearly as successful.
The story, a pastiche of characters and contexts that promises more than it delivers, concerns seven figures of sin, apparently sinful beyond redemption, who have been invited to hear the reading of a mysterious millionaire's last will and testament.
The seven invitees are not exactly the objects of innocent merriment familiar to fans of Gilbert & Sullivan; rather, each is intended to strike a deeply sinister chord in the hearts of men, women and children: a slothful blacksmith, a greedy banker, a gluttonous cook, an egotistical actor, a pedophilic ventriloquist, an ogling optometrist and a big-game hunter. (The fact that there are no women among the sinners seems blatantly sexist if admirably gallant.)
Whether and how each sinner comes to his end, who inherits the fortune and what role the executor (a crocodile in a penguin suit) plays poses more of a mystery at the beginning of the hourlong entertainment than at the end.
The action, such as it is, and as it can be seen from the audience, is accompanied by a recorded narration by Irish vocalist Gavin Friday. Unfortunately, while the first five minutes of Friday's stylized delivery may be amusing in a stagey sort of way, it quickly loses its appeal, especially as one realizes that it is going to continue for the entire hour.
The music, a collaboration between Sanko and Grammy-winning composer Danny Elfman, is another problem. Although it is professionally scored and performed (on tape) and is appropriately whimsical and Halloween-ish, it consists for the most part of either stock "creepy" sounds and noises, retreaded minimalism or grotesque tunes highly derivative of Prokofiev.
Admittedly, there is a lot of backstory that has intrigued the media, including Elfman's participation; the reputation Sanko has gained as an avant-garde artist; and the taped presence of Friday, founder of the postpunk Virgin Prunes.
But while it's not entirely unlikely that little kids wouldn't like it, their parents are advised to prepared for the possibility of serious squirming. And be ready to explain what a pedophile is.
THE FORTUNE TELLER
Presented by UCLA Live
Creator-director: Erik Sanko
Original music: Danny Elfman and Erik Sanko
Lighting designer: Andrew Hill
Art director/project manager Jessica Grindstaff
Sound designer: Andy Green
Architectural designer: Selin Maner
Mansion construction: Matthew Acheson
Interior design team: Deana and Matt Acheson, Fatimah Durkee, Chloe Foglia, Jessica Grindstaff, Michelle Harper, Alex Haring, Robert Jamieson, Anders Johnson, Kara Koirtyohann, Tami Lee, Liz McGarrity, Francesca Mannoni, Senta Romasco, Erik Sanko, Erin and Phil Stead, Christopher Young and Becky Yurek
Performers: Matthew Acheson, Jonathan Cross, Erik Sanko and Randall Whittinghill
Narrator: Gavin Friday