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Take the plunge into the world of 'Freud'

If a rich coq au vin is catnip to a foodie, then "Freud and the Sandman," the first play of New Phoenix Theatre on the Park's new season, is perfectly apt to a Freudie. While not essential to one's enjoyment of the phantasmagoric one-act, some knowledge of the theories of Dr. Sigmund Freud would be most favorable, not unlike thumbing through a dusty old history tome before settling into one of Tom Stoppard's headier efforts.

But playfulness is very much on the mind of director Robert Waterhouse here, using first-rate puppetry and evocative mood lighting to create a satisfyingly surrealistic style. The play opens on a reclined Freud (Christian Brandjes), lighting a ciggy and recalling his study of "the uncanny," code for the intrinsic fears and death-fearing that humans internalize and Freud fashioned into a long-gestating essay.

From this point, he is drawn to E.T.A. Hoffman's Grand Guignol tale "The Sandman," a gothic story centering on Nathaniel (played here by David Butterfield), a student haunted by his father's murder who fixates on his terrible fear of The Sandman, a haunting figure who steals the eyes of children.

Nathaniel is engaged to Klara (Laura Bevilacqua Butterfield), who becomes fascinated by his obsession with an automaton created by his professor, a cryptic, mysterious exemplar which eventually contributes to his impending madness.

As one can derive, "Freud and the Sandman" is pretty heavy stuff and almost impossible to imbibe in one viewing. Yet the experience of it is thankfully less than taxing, mostly because of Waterhouse's ingenious use of puppetry throughout, which creates an otherworldly mode of visual expres-sion that jibes marvelously with the spooky, dense atmosphere of the production.

The pace could be tightened even further for a 55-minute piece, and a certain unevenness blunts a few key passages. But there is much to admire, beginning with the smartly chosen cast, with a special nod to puppeteer Patrick Cain.

The physical production is also impressive, especially with the rustic interior of New Phoenix being an ideal match for the Salvador Dali-esque imagery with heavy emphasis on eyeballs, which any fan of "Un Chien Andalou" will tell you, was definitely a specialty of the surrealist painter.

Freud's deeply influential musings on sexuality are not as present here as might be expected -- though his assessment that "home is the mother's genitals" gets a shout-out -- which creates a play that a somewhat advanced child might even take something away from, especially with the liberal puppetry, used for grandeur in a way that bizarrely but succinctly recalls Julie Taymor's inventive concoctions used in "The Lion King."

There's a lot to take in here in less than an hour, but if you're willing to take the plunge, a lot to take with you as well.

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>Theater Review

"Freud and the Sandman"

Drama presented through Oct. 3 by the New Phoenix Theatre on the Park, 95 Johnson Park. For information, call 853-1334.

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