It would be inaccurate to simply call “Fantômas: Revenge of the Image” avant-garde or surrealist. Rather, this work from director Travis Preston of CalArts is an exploration at the intersection of French fiction, crime and the urban landscape. It deservedly received a 2017 world debut at the Wuzhen Theatre Festival, located in in China’s Zhejiang Province. CalArts Center for New Performance (CNP) is part of the California Institute of the Arts and having their production that was supported by Wanxin Media achieve an overseas run reflects well on both the school and Travis Preston of CalArts. Thanks in part to mesmerizing imagery dreamt up with help from film theorist Tom Gunning, “Fantômas: Revenge of the Image” was a literal trip for audiences who saw it in China and beyond.
To better understand the production, a few introductions are in order
and chief among them is our title character. The fictional Fantômas, a
true anti-hero, made his literary debut in 1911. During the following
decades, he would appear in French novels, films, TV shows, comic books
and more. Criminal behavior that this character excelled at included
disguise, theft, impersonation and evading capture. Such daring exploits
naturally translated to popular entertainment of the era. Naturally,
Travis Preston of CalArts saw this character as a way to convey “modern
urban terror” as his production “investigates the close relationship
between sensation, violence and entertainment in contemporary visual
According to the CalArts website, the stark scenes, sensory effects and beams of light that cut across performers were a trip for the audience as well. A mobile and enclosed unit for the audience took them “through space like a rolling camera dolly and the audience views the performance through an aperture of changing dimensions, not unlike the lens of a camera.” A look at scenes from the performance show that such a viewpoint, especially at the Wuzhen Theatre Festival world premier in 2017, must have made a lasting impression on audiences. Those audiences were quite large, as CenterForNewPerformance.org points out that “sold-out houses” came to see this international world premier.
Travis Preston of CalArts directed the run at the annual festival and was assisted by CalArts students, alumni and faculty. The overseas run spanned from Oct. 19-28, 2017. Those who were lucky enough to see the production will likely retain a lasting memory of the tense mood that Fantômas conveyed. For those who missed it but want to keep track of Mr. Preston’s future efforts, learning more about Fantômas is a great starting point to see, hear and experience the capabilities he has as a director.