As arguments over the baby go, “When was the last time you varnished him?” is one of the less common accusations made by a wife to her husband. But when your child has been fashioned from a tree stump and you have to keep him hidden in case the neighbors notice his stick-like fingers, it’s the kind of thing that matters. Thus it is, in Vanishing Point’s visually striking adaptation of Jan Svankmajer’s surreal 2000 movie, “Little Otik,” that an infertile couple have their wishes fulfilled, only to be propelled into a nightmarish fairy tale of gothic dimensions.
The Prague-born Svankmajer, an influence on filmmakers such as Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton, combined his love of surrealism and traditional fables in the modern-day retelling of an old Czech fairy story attributed to Karel Jaromir Erben. What begins as a piece of urban realism, as a childless woman neurotically projects her desire for a baby onto an inanimate piece of wood, turns into an unsettling horror fantasy as the tot takes on a life of its own. In scenes reminiscent of “Little Shop of Horrors” by way of “Eraserhead,” the tree-baby develops a voracious appetite and, worse, a taste for human flesh.
Working in collaboration with the National Theater of Scotland, helmer Matthew Lenton stays true to the arc of Svankmajer’s story, but explores further the idea of adult fears of childbirth and babies while introducing his own strand of surrealism. The wooden Otik symbolizes our fear of an unknown future; he is the child who threatens to deny his parents their independence, strip them of their personalities and eat away at their lives. This he does literally as his twigs turn into branches and his hunger becomes insatiable.
Lenton underscores the point by projecting images of fetuses, crawling toddlers and swimming sperm across the barren earth of Kai Fischer’s set onto the back wall and an ever-turning front door to the family’s apartment. At the same time, he gives greater prominence to the young Elspeth, the neighbor’s daughter whose otherworldly presence adds to the sense of mystery about childhood. Played with still authority by newcomer Rebecca Smith, she kicks off the show by playing ball in the auditorium before the house lights have gone down, drawing us into a landscape in which the adults appear no less peculiar than their offspring.
Freeing himself from too close an adaptation, Lenton tells the story with tremendous imagination, as his actors traverse the stage pushing baby buggies, carrying umbrellas or appearing all at once in pajamas. There is an air of strangeness as an old woman pulls cabbages forcibly from the ground, a real cat appears from a cradle and the abstract patterns of Finn Ross’ projections crackle across the landscape.
Along with Christopher Shutt’s ominous soundtrack, these images keep the production on the creepy side of comic, although there are also several moments of grim laughter.
Sandy Grierson and Louise Ludgate make a credible set of new parents — he the fastidious type overtaken by events beyond his control, she dreamily unaware of the severity of their situation. Even so, in the transition from screen to stage, something about the urgency of their desire for a child has been lost in order to make way for the fairy tale’s gothic excesses. This makes a highly enjoyable and visually arresting piece of theater seem slightly more silly than sad at its grisly end.