After retrieving your ticket for The Fortune Teller at the HERE Arts Center box office – and I suggest doing that soon – you’ll be instructed to exit the building and head west, following a faded red line along the sidewalk. This leads to a door, which opens onto a staircase, down which you'll descend to a corridor and, finally, the lobby for the dainty theater. It’s a mysterious and fitting beginning to this macabre marionette show that’s been extended through December 22nd, after an initial sold-out run.
Once inside, you’ll likely spend the warm minutes before show-time (don’t overdress; the theater is toasty) transfixed by the magnificent mansion that dominates the entire front of the stage. This is the work of Matt Acheson and Selin Maner, who have imbued the exterior of the house with a spooky charm that happily foreshadows the rest of this sublime production.
The Fortune Teller is the brain-child of Erik Sanko, who is one of those downtown music scenesters you really ought to know about (I didn’t), so that at the very least you can be the one to say things like, “Really, you’ve never heard of Sanko? He played with The Lounge Lizards for, like, 16 years. You know, John Lurie? I’ll burn you a CD.” (Lately he’s been with Skeleton Key, who played at the Knitting Factory last night.)
Meanwhile, between gigs, Sanko has been toiling away at a series of rather exquisite marionettes, which finally come out to play in this moody affair. The story – which, by the way, features a score composed by some guy named Danny Elfman – riffs on the classic “strangers summoned to a mansion on a dark and stormy night” genre. In this case, a wealthy industrialist has died and instructed a fortune teller to distribute his estate to each of the guests as he sees fit. As part of this process, the fortune teller predicts their future violent deaths, which are vividly acted out one by one. Eventually it becomes clear that they have been gathered to inherit something entirely different from what they expected.
The Fortune Teller is, in part, an allegory about the seven deadly sins, but that’s not at all what makes so spellbinding; it’s the eerie atmosphere conjured up by Sanko’s brilliant ensemble. The puppeteers charge the marionettes with an enchanting liveliness. (At certain moments you may swear you see them breathing.) The narration, intoned by a gravelly-voiced Gavin Friday, immediately mesmerizes. And Elfman invokes the perfect mood with a score that is as creaky and haunting as you’d expect.
Special praise must be heaped on Jessica Grindstaff, who designed the interior of the mansion. From the main parlor, with its deluxe wallpaper and chandelier of bony hands, to the painstakingly detailed locations where each guest faces his doom, the overall effect is breathtaking. Like all the other aspects of The Fortune Teller, Grindstaff’s deeply nuanced work pulls you in as if by invisible strings.
The Fortune Teller continues through December 22nd. Tickets are going fast. (Photo by Oliver Dalzell)