The Fortune Teller

Created and Directed by Erik Sanko and Jessica Grindstaff

The Optometrist in The Fortune Teller. Photo credit: Adam Forgash, Oliver Hecks, Oliver Dalzell.

BOTTOM LINE:  A moral tale skillfully performed with deftly-detailed marionettes.

Once the air turns chilly and the sins of Halloween night begin to sink in, it doesn't seem too early to start thinking about those New Year's resolutions. And what better way to be reminded of that jog towards the end of the year then with an opulent, antique puppet show parable? Phantom Limb's The Fortune Teller, now playing at HERE Arts Center, is a sumptuous and succinct feast for the eyes and soul.

Welcomed into the theatre by thunderstorm sound effects, one potentially intentionally flickering house light and an eerie blue glow illuminating the giant dollhouse that encompasses the stage, it is no mystery that something downright ghoulish is in store. That feeling is further underscored with the half carnival-half funeral march opening instrumental. Once the narrative begins, however, the real feast gets underway.  

As the front door creaks open, Silas Leech, the narrator (a plump but not the least bit darling antique crocodile marionette) sets the stage - what will be depicted is the reading of the last will and testament of wealthy townsman Nathaniel Axe, for which seven prominent men of the city have been gathered. But shortly after the stage opens to reveal a Last Supper-esque tableau assemblage of town characters, ranging from The Hunter to The Ventriloquist, it becomes clear that this will be no typical reading.  Instead of the will itself dictating what each man shall receive, it is stipulated that a fortune teller must come in to present each man's appropriate inheritance. And just like that, The Fortune Teller appears.  With clever stagecraft, each man is shown exactly what lies in store, and though it be beautiful to watch, the future for these seven men, each with one deadly character flaw, isn't quite as pretty.   

The intricately constructed oversized dollhouse set is a Victorian masterpiece, lavish to the last detail, while feeling delightfully low-tech. Constantly divulging additional little secrets and rooms, the set is just as much a character as the delicate and detailed marionettes themselves. The backstage of this ornate dollhouse can only be imagined to be a sea of to-scale props amidst a web of marionette strings. Expertly performed by nimble puppeteers, it becomes easy to believe in the humanity of the puppets due to their exquisite manipulation. The puppets have moments of grace and comedy, even at times creating their own sound effects on stage. By the time the house once again closes its door to the audience, the puppet's scale so convincingly becomes life-sized, that seeing the puppeteers bowing in front of the house, so much larger than that past hour of life, ends up being quite jarring. 

Creators and directors, the Phantom Limb duo of Erik Sanko and Jessica Grindstaff, have created something truly lovely (developed as part of HERE's Dream Music Puppetry Program) and have assembled a team to perform the piece to the level it demands. Finely cast is Irish singer/songwriter Gavin Friday, lending his gravelly baritone to Leech. Mildly reminiscent of something out of The Tiger Lillies, Friday's smoky voice beautifully crackles further character into this creepy, cautionary tale. The dexterous puppetry team consists of Sabrina D'Angelo, Honey Goodenough, Anne Posluszny and Ian Sweetman. And all the while, Danny Elfman and Erik Sanko's warmly haunting musical score tinkles along, deepening the inextricable zests of Tim Burton and Edward Gorey-like imagery, with a dash of Wes Anderson detail, already present in appearances and mood. 

This shadowy allegory is a rather terrific example of why puppet shows are and should be a part of the present body of theatrical work. Unpretentiously presenting a not-so-gentle reminder to be careful, lest evil ways get the better of you, The Fortune Teller is just the right kind of morale boost for a cold winter's night.

(The Fortune Teller plays at HERE Arts Center, 145 Sixth Avenue, entrance at Dominick, through December 4, 2010. Performances are Wednesdays at 7pm, Thursdays at 7pm, Fridays at 7pm and 10:30pm, and Saturdays at 7pm and 10:30pm. Tickets are $25 and are available at or by calling 212.352.3101 or at the HERE Box Office from 4pm to curtain on show days.)