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CUPAL’s Film Fatale Is Special

I bet he was the killer

Mystery! Intrigue! Black-and-white-ness!

Last night, CUPAL’s put on a performance called Special Project: Film Fatale. We sent Film Fanatic Ross Chapman to check it out.

I would love to be able to call this show, “An X with a twist,” but with so much going on in CUPAL’s Special Project: Film Fatale, I really can’t explain it that concisely. Film Fatale was written by Director Rachel Shafran (CC ’16) and producer Emma Finder (CC ’16) as a film-noir style murder mystery. They wanted their show to be like an old silent movie on stage, so they dressed the actors in grayscale and used makeup that matched. The dialogue of the show slowly faded during production as composer Ethan Fudge (CC ’15) replaced it all with music, leaving only a few lines of dialogue to be projected onto the Black Box Theater like text cards. All in all, their vision of a silent movie on stage came to a spectacular head yesterday at opening night, when the experimental concept and jazzy score got their first real trial with a Columbian audience.

The crew immediately set the scene for the viewers by handing out programs that were arranged more like a police dossier than a playbill. Instead of cast and crew notes, each character is described in terms of their relationship to the crime and the victim. As we read, the pit musicians played a number of swing standards. The five-person combo consisted of two violins, a cello, a bass, and a baritone saxophone, and the prominence of the sax and the plucked bass made the group sound much more jazzy than orchestral. The music during the show, in general, gave each character and scene their own motif. Some of them sounded very close to classic songs such as “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess, but he insists that those similarities are only coincidental. The music also, at times, directly imitates the happenings on stage. For instance, when Detective Charlie Dixon (Nathaniel Jameson, CC ’18) laughs to himself, the saxophone plays high, scooped notes that sounded to everyone in the audience like a “ha, ha, ha.” Considering the responsibility of conveying everything that the dialogue once did, the composer and all of the performers did a fantastic job.

The story follows Detective Dixon, a private investigator who is just about to retire. Before he can, Marion Montgomery (CC ’16) comes in with a file about the murder of her brother, Richard (Harry Bickford, CC ’17). Deciding he can’t let this girl’s case fall aside, he takes it on, perhaps as his last ever. While he played a dead character, Bickford was crucial to the show. When characters were describing events in the past or speculating how Richard might have died, everyone actually acted it out on stage, directly interacting with the imagined people next to them. The best examples of this come in scene 6, where Detective Dixon considers every main character a suspect. I won’t give too much of it away, but it’s a slapsticky scene in the middle of a film noir. Film Fatale as a whole is surprisingly funny, and it definitely doesn’t take the sometimes-cliché story premise too seriously.

This is, from top to bottom, one of the most fun shows I’ve seen at Columbia. Its novel concept is executed cleanly, and it’s not so out there that it alienates the audience. The acting matches the music, and they both make me want to go watch some more film noir. The production is wonderfully deceptive: through some good staging and well-located lighting, I didn’t see anything until the crew wanted me to. The grayscale gimmick was neat and unobtrusive, and to the point of detail of printing new black-and-white labels for liquor bottles that weren’t even too colorful in the first place. The show has two more performances, today at 8 pm and Sunday at 2 pm. Tickets are available free at the TIC, and from what I hear they’re going fast. The show is only 40 minutes long, so if you have the free time, you won’t regret checking out this fun, experimental play.

Someone with sinister intentions via CUPAL’s Facebook event page

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