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The Sandman
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times

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Playwright: Bob Fisher after E.T.A Hoffman. At: Oracle Productions, 3809 N. Broadway. Tickets: 252- 220-0269;; FREE (but reserve). Runs through: June 30

Three of the four actors in The Sandman take multiple roles and all of them manipulate doll puppets (designed by Tracy Otwell), demonstrating their mastery of the actor's "plastique" (voice, movement, expressiveness)—and so they must be if the audience is to make any sense of this complicated and cloudy 85-minute version of E.T.A. Hoffman's 1816 short story. Under director Max Truax, they nimbly switch characters by stooping shoulders, twitching hands, stiffening limbs or turning up a coat collar, accented by the expressionistic shadows of Karen Thompson's lighting.

Even so, it's difficult to follow Bob Fisher's adaptation, in part because it's really two stories that overlap through one character, Nathaniel, presumably an early 19th-century German university student. (Fisher's text doesn't actually specify.) Nathaniel was a boy when his father died under mysterious circumstances after visits by Coppelius, a sinister figure whom Nathaniel equates with the Sandman, not our own benevolent bringer of dreams but a creature who steals children's eyes to feed his offspring on the moon.

When college-age Nathaniel is approached by Coppola—a maker of barometers, lenses and telescopes (through which one can see the moon)—Nathaniel thinks he is Coppelius and it drives him mad, quite literally. In Story Two, Nathaniel's madness doubles when he falls in love with the daughter of a professor. Olympia, a doll-like young woman with a secret of her own, threatens Nathaniel's relationship with his longtime fiancée and her brother, Lothario, his only true friend. The two story threads merge only in a shocking conclusion, which finally brings a degree of clarity to things.

However, it's not a sufficient degree of clarity to justify the journey during which Hoffman grapples with some of his favorite physical and metaphysical devices such as doppelgangers, robotics, pseudo-science and the fevered imagination. Hoffman frames the story with letters written after the fact by Lothario—a part Fisher mostly eliminates. Instead, he splits the narration between Nathaniel and Lothario, with the actor playing Lothario doubling as a younger Nathaniel as the narrative shifts back and forth in time. It's too fragmented for me, especially as Fisher emphasizes the faux mysticism of the work (such as never clearly explaining that what Nathaniel buys from Coppola is a little telescope and not an enchantment).

Perhaps Fisher means to show us the warped state of Nathaniel's mind, but to make that work he needs to set Nate up as normal first, and gradually have us enter madness with him, not outside him. As it is, so many elements of fact and character are elusive—even though stylishly elusive—that one gives up caring. Not many have the patience to peel the layers of an onion.

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