“What evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows….”
“The Shadow” was a midcentury radio mystery that sometimes kept a little girl from sleeping. My mother finally tried to stop me from listening to it, but I persisted, because sometimes being scared is delightful. Decades later, I found some of the same scares in a new radio play created by Chicago’s Cabinet of Curiosity—a play the creators call a sonic spectacle.
The company is launching a new radio department called Phonophobia as its response to the challenges of the pandemic moment (and with a profit-sharing mechanism for contributing artists). Its first offering is a superbly produced and vividly frightening radio play, The Cabinet. The play is adapted from Redmoon Theater’s 2005 stage production of the same name, which was an adaptation of the 1920 expressionist horror film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a German silent film, directed by Robert Wiene.
The Cabinet opened this week and runs until March 20. It’s told from the point of view of Cesare the Somnambulist (thrillingly voiced by Colm Reilly), a man who never is really asleep or awake and often walks in his sleep (and doesn’t remember it). Seeking treatment, Cesare is taken to an asylum “in the mountain village of Holstenwall” where he meets the doctor known for treating such maladies. Doctor Caligari is played by H.B. Ward, whose deep sonorous voice has added drama to many local productions.
This all takes place, Cesare tells us, shortly after “the great disaster—the conflagration that engulfed and brought to sorrow the continents of our planet.”
The poetic language of the script (written by Mickle Maher) follows the original film and the story of the lovers Alan and Jane (David Stobbe and Lindsey Noel Whiting) and their connections to Cesare and the doctor. There is of course a cabinet, in which Cesare rests from time to time. I’ll say no more about the story, except to note it is a living nightmare, cleverly enhanced by its aural environment.
The Cabinet was created and directed by Frank Maugeri, Mickle Maher and Mark Messing. Messing composed the original music and sound design.
The actors’ performances are excellent; The Cabinet ultimately succeeds because of the original music and the chilling sound effects. I wore a headset to listen, which enhanced the intimacy of the story and the creepy sound effects (heartbeats, footsteps, wind, bells). I recommend you do that if possible.
The Cabinet, a 46-minute audio play, is available for listening through March 20. Tickets are $15 and provide access to the show for 24 hours. Buy your ticket here. The company says ticket sales will jumpstart fundraising for the full remount of the original Redmoon production.
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If you find the story of the Somnambulist and Dr. Caligari compelling, you can watch the original 1920 silent film on YouTube (stream it to a large-screen TV if possible). It is worth watching if only for the design; the expressionistic black and white geometry of the set with its tilted walls, jagged angles and crazy diagonal staircases is visually stunning.
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra celebrated Halloween in 2014 with a screening of the 1920 film, accompanied by original music by the punk classical organist, Cameron Carpenter, whose compositions draw on jazz, pop and film scores. His blazing performance technique and the iconic horror film made this a thrilling evening.
You can experience old-time radio drama too; you can listen to episodes of “The Shadow,” which was based on 1930s pulp fiction. There were several other scary radio shows, like “Suspense” and “Inner Sanctum.” Read about them and listen to some episodes here, where the AVClub gathered up some of the best.