The Fortune Teller, from puppeteering theatre company Phantom Limb and featuring music by composing legend Danny Elfman, is the sort of schauedenfreude -filled Victoriana that promises depth in its production values but fails to deliver on this promise. There’s been a rash of over-styled, under-storied tales in various media over the last few years, no doubt in part to the rising popularity of the steampunk/urban fantasy/gothic aesthetic that has influenced artists like Elfman’s frequent collaborator Tim Burton. In this case, the shallow nature of the design concept and its lack of relationship to the story being told reveals a disappointing weakness in this production.
While the taxadermical atmosphere of The Fortune Teller’s puppetry is alluring to the senses, it would be inaccurate to call this production a drama, or even a fairytale. Rather, the loose narrative sets up an uneasy premise: a talking Alligator, dressed in the height of Victorian fashion, is the lawyer for the recently deceased “millionaire industrialist” Nathanial Axe; the premise of the play takes place around the gathering of a series of supposedly disreputable figures from the nearby town as the lawyer reads the will. It’s a peculiar document, requiring each of those present to sit and listen to a fortune teller in order to have a chance at inheriting from Axe.
It’s a chilling premise that somehow touches on a high percentage of the the pressure points one must hit in order to achieve a sensational production, and plenty of puppetry-based productions have pulled off this kind of illusion. And besides, the music’s by Danny Elfman. So you really, really want to enjoy the play. As a viewer who loves the genre from which this play seems to spring from, one wants the ability to delve into the symbolism of the structure and decide: whether it’s significant that none of the stories really makes sense, question whether perhaps the strange endings which each person meets with (and none, with the exception of a pedophiliac ventriloquist, actually gives much sign of being truly evil) are symbolic of some greater meaning…but the depth of production that would allow this kind of extended academic dissection just isn’t there. The clever set and beautifully-constructed puppets are charming in their Victorian appeal, but the direction (or perhaps the skill level of the puppeteers) don’t quite reach expectations, and the narrative thrust of the play is completely without a sense of urgency or suspense.
The set is probably the greatest triumph of The Fortune Teller (other than, I would assume from how quickly the weekend’s performances sold out, the box office proceeds), and it is serviceably clever in its ability to create spaces for both puppets and their puppeteers throughout the disjoined “narrative” presented by the script. From reading Phantom Limb’s company bio, one must ask whether the “innovative theatrical and production design company” has created a stunning technical calling card for itself at the expense of its chops as a provider of drama – of which the story in The Fortune Teller has little.
There are themes that The Fortune Teller hints at which are deserving of fuller investigation: the circularity of events, how a community is interconnected, and paranoia vs. random coincidence. The meta-textual question set up by the narrative – the questions about how individuals wait for answers only to reach the end of their story – their lives – and find disappointment and death – are only applicable insofar as a critic is willing to speculate on the sub textual motives of the authors. They are not upheld in the text, but transcend the textural via the crackling energy of live theatre. Is this success? That’s for the company to decide.
As an audience member, I felt emotionally dissatisfied; while I wouldn’t have wanted to feel compelled to return for a second act, I would have found it reassuring if the production team had a second act in mind, or if this had been a workshop production. As a finished piece, The Fortune Teller lacks weight, drama, and intensity.