THEATER | “Elijah’s Wake” at Open Eye: A taut emotional tightrope walked by humans and puppets alike


Elijah’s Wake runs just over an hour, and it’s paying Michael Sommers’s creation a compliment to say that you probably wouldn’t want it to last much longer. The acclaimed 2003 work by Open Eye Figure Theatre, now being reprised at the company’s storefront space in the Phillips neighborhood, is a bracing cocktail of macabre puppetry and convincingly desperate acting; it’s visually rich, but it’s also unremittingly challenging both intellectually and emotionally.

Sommers calls the work a “visual poem,” and that’s important to bear in mind as you approach it. The play is precisely crafted and reveals multiple layers of meaning, but it’s also intentionally ambiguous, with a floating quality that invites viewers to feel as much as to think.

elijah’s wake, playing through november 14 at the open eye theatre. for tickets ($15) and information, see

The piece follows a shadow of a narrative involving a couple (Julian McFaul and Nancy Seward) who are drawn together by their apparent mutual affection but who struggle with a series of nightmarish scenarios including a dinner table that won’t let McFaul eat, food that looks delicious but tastes repulsive, and the birth of a small figure who meets a seemingly untimely end. Throughout, they—and we—are heckled by a grotesque, skeletal bird who asks tauntingly rhetorical questions (“Does it take two to tango?”) as the man and woman suffer.

The Halloween season was the appropriate time to re-mount this production, which often has the quality of a waking nightmare. Open Eye vets McFaul and Seward, supported by Dan Dukich and Johann Hauser, give perfectly calibrated performances that match Sommers’s wondrous, dark vision. There are classical and Biblical allusions to chew on, but those who don’t care to parse them can just sit back and take in the visual spectacle; the entire show feels like it’s been created using stop-motion animation. The puppets are visibly manipulated by the cast, but Sommers also offers a few illusions that surprised me, even from the fourth row.

The original score by Anthony Gatto features a number of echoing passages for solo piano that recall the music of Györgi Ligeti, famously featured in the Stanley Kubrick films Eyes Wide Shut and 2001: A Space Odyssey. The association is fitting, since Sommers shares Kubrick’s knack for creating tableaus that are visually sumptuous but emotionally stark. Elijah’s Wake also specifically shares 2001‘s insight that we are apt to grapple with many of the deepest mysteries of existence while sitting alone at a table, staring at a plate.