Puppets in Review- Nosferatu

Deborah Hertzberg- Somewhere Between Silent Film and Puppetry: A Sneak Peek at “Nosferatu”

August, 2003

review by Donald Devet

Like the living dead who walk the Earth suspended between two worlds, Deborah Hertzberg’s adaptation of the Dracula story defies classification.

Like the living dead who walk the Earth suspended between two worlds, Deborah Hertzberg’s adaptation of the Dracula story defies classification. Will it be a silent film or a puppet show? Or will it be something in between? Early in the preparation of “Nosferatu” for an August 2003 premiere at the New York International Fringe Festival, I talked with Ms. Hertzberg about her hopes, fears and inspirations for her first full scale production.

Even though this is a new show, Ms. Hertzberg has been developing the play, off and on, ever since she first saw the 1922 German silent film, Nosferatu, in the late 80’s. She was fascinated by the creative adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the creepiness of the stark black and white images. German expressionism, a form of symbolism and stylization popular in the 1920s, was evident in the film’s deeply shadowed sets, off kilter camera angles and exaggerated gestures. This cult style gave the story a heightened sense of the supernatural in an un-hollywood way.

Ms. Hertzberg was lucky to see the movie augmented by a live music soundtrack that brought the film to life for her. She now has an appreciation for silent films but doesn’t see “Nosferatu” in terms of great cinema. In her graduate puppetry course at the University of Connecticut, Ms. Hertzberg created an entire puppet version of “Nosferatu” – on paper. Bart Roccobarton, her instructor, required her to write a script; produce stage, puppet and costume designs and figure out a budget. It was a tough assignment that would pay off years later when it came time to producing the real thing.

After graduating from U-CONN, Ms. Hertzberg moved to New York where she formed the Cat’s Paw Collective and once again began scripting “Nosferatu.” This time she had some help. Ms. Hertzberg shared what she had written with friends at Cat’s Paw who made suggestions and gave her critical feedback. The finished script is basically an action outline. In order to stay true to the silent film style, there’s no spoken dialogue or narration. Ms. Hertzberg envisioned using table top puppets (Eric Bass style rod puppets with a live hand) framed through a scrim and she designed a bat shaped shadow screen with a flickering effect to evoke the silent film look. Although a lot of work has gone into giving this stage show a cinematic feel, Ms. Hertzberg insists that the audience won’t need to know that “Nosferatu” is based on the movie to appreciate the story.

Is the Dracula story still scary? “It would be difficult nowadays to make a scary vampire story,” says Ms. Hertzberg. “People aren’t afraid of vampires anymore. The 1922 film by today’s standards is almost comical.” So she decided to take the melodrama and make it comedic. How does she describe her version of “Nosferatu?” “Campy.” But “campy” can sometimes go too far and Ms. Hertzberg is careful not to let that happen. She feels that the time spent in rehearsals is crucial to finding the right balance. “That’s where you really learn if what you wrote works. Someone else might have another take on it that could make it clearer, better, funnier, more melodramatic or more poignant. It may not work as I wrote it. The puppeteers may do something on impulse that will work.”
Can this melding of film style and puppet theater work? Ms. Hertzberg offers an explanation. “A puppeteer performing a character uses the same kind of gestural movements that an actor does in a melodramatic film. Doing it with puppets makes it cute and funny. It’s a matter of allowing the audience to care, but not get too emotionally involved. “Nosferatu” will be mystical, supernatural, eerie and scary. And there’s going to be a moment or two of horror.”

Ms. Hertzberg feels lucky to have a support system to help her bring this production to life; the puppeteers who have worked with her over the years are by her side. “Working with others is the magic. My favorite moment is being able to let go and give up control. There’s a limit to what you can control. Whatever happens happens. You have to trust the people you work with.” Ms. Hertzberg’s greatest fear is that they’ll suddenly all get jobs and disappear.

Ms. Hertzberg is devoting her life to puppetry which sometimes makes her feel like a freak when she goes to family functions and discovers everyone else is living a normal 9 to 5 existence. But Ms. Hertzberg says she would be a miserable if she wasn’t in puppet theater. She credits Mr. Roccobarton her U-CONN teacher, with helping her find her niche. “He’s everybody’s ‘puppet daddy.’ He’s a good teacher because he’s always a student of puppetry, always open to learning. You end up the living dead if you don’t keep learning.”

Deborah Hertzberg and the puppet theatre ensemble Cat’s Paw Collective together have created NOSFERATU, a show where silent film and puppetry collide! Performances of NOSFERATU are part of the NY International Fringe Festival, August 8th -24th.

Drawing on the 1922 silent film 0f the same name, this puppet theatre version resurrects the famed Dracula legend in an expressionistic tale of horror, humor and hysteria. Using rod puppetry, shadow images, cinematic devices and biting wit, NOSFERATU celebrates the campiness of the classic vampire tale.

The cast, crew and fellow members of Cat’s Paw Collective are all professional artists currently working on such productions as “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Avenue Q,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” Basil Twist’s “Petrushka” and Sesame Street. NOSFERATU is also supported by grants from the Jim Henson Foundation and The Puppeteers of America.

The Cat’s Paw Collective members (led by Bill Hubner and Deborah Hertzberg) grew out of the O’Neill Puppetry Conference (Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center) where their like-minded creative sensibility united them as a group dedicated to the creation of new and innovative puppet theatre productions and cabarets.

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