Actor Christian Brandjes moved to Buffalo a short while ago and has quickly become a major player on stages from the suburbs to downtown; he's well-traveled, well-trained.
Brandjes brought with him skills learned and practiced from composer and conductor Walter Thompson, the inventor of Soundpainting, a multidisciplinary sign language developed in 1974, initially for musicians. Now the art form includes dancers, actors, poets and a variety of visual artists. These who, what, how and when gestures — there are approximately 1,200-plus— are communicated by a "soundpainter" and then translated, performed, painted and played. A musical composition, an acting scene, for example, is given immediate life, art on-the-fly, a work of the moment. Directions can be specific but apparently sometimes there is creativity by accident.
Soundpainter Brandjes and his Buffalo Soundpainting Ensemble return to the New Phoenix Theatre this week with an example of this unusual, albeit puzzling, storytelling device. Brandjes has taken excerpts from the life of Dr. Daniel Schreber, whose wild descent into madness in the early years of the 20th century was famously chronicled by Sigmund Freud and titled the short, dark and chaotic hour-long piece, "The Devil's Castle." Schreber, a middle-aged jurist, awoke one morning thinking he was God's wife, prompting some major sexuality issues, strange behavior and bizarre dreams. Freud came up with the terrible sounding "paranoid dementia" but later decided on schizophrenia.
But wait. As if Schreber didn't have enough problems here, Brandjes has inserted the Greek myth of Cassandra, the prophetess who wouldn't be believed. Seems she spurned the god Apollo and he canceled the power he had granted her to correctly see the future.
Opening night of "The Devil's Castle" featured three "interlocutors," Jennifer Fitzery, Kate Olena and Beth Donahue Templeton dressed in black and facing Brandjes, the soundpainter. The voices in Schreber's head came gradually to life - shrieks, chants, staccato chirps, drones, unexplainable emotional juxtapositions, sobbing, laughing, ridiculing, periodic "noise art" — as the semaphoric hand gestures, waves, pointings, suggested body positions and often utterings were given in series. Thus, continuity, a kind of oral or even wordless narrative. Weird, fascinating and surreal.
Cassandra was in the mix, speaking of doom to no listeners. Fitzery, Olena and Donahue Templeton were focused on Brandjes: cold laser looks, rapt, obedient.
Fortunately, there are program notes to help novice soundpainting audiences. The risk-taking New Phoenix — Richard Lambert, Robert Waterhouse and now Brandjes — know the value of the teaching moment. Daniel Schreber said, "I cannot, of course, count on being fully understood." Amen. But, the guidelines aid.
Director and soundpainter Brandjes can mix and match a cast of seven for the three who perform on a given night: available are Kristen Tripp Kelley, Toni Smith Wilson, Susan Drozd — all teachers of the theater arts like Fitzery, Olena and Donahue Templeton — and Todd Benzin, a longtime member of a comedy club where improvisation is a way of life. Group experience is invaluable in a show like this.
The night is a soundpainting sampler. Certainly there is much more to come.
> Theater Review
The Devil's Castle
Review: 3 stars (Out of 4)
Performances by the Buffalo Soundpainting Ensemble at the New Phoenix Theatre ?(95 N. Johnson Park) through May 26. ?Call 853-1334 or visit www.newphoenix.org.