Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Edgar Allan Poe at West Valley College

A Very Dark Evening
with Edgar Allan Poe

West Valley College
October 20, 2013

I began my journalism career as a theater critic, so when a friend asked me to review an evening of Edgar Allan Poe (adapted for the stage by David Chapelle), I saw it as a good chance to review theater through an opera critic’s ears.

The opening, a reading of Poe’s immortal poem, “The Raven,” gave me just what I was looking for. Kyle Terry, looking remarkably like Poe himself, dodged the sing-song tendencies of the poem’s metrical structure and ran right past the usual rhymed landing spots. (This reminded me of actor Paul Whitworth, who memorably drove through Hamlet’s trademark line with something like “Tobeornottobe, thatisthequestion.”) The device effectively turned the poem into a dramatic monologue, aided by movement and emotional outbursts. The only flaws were a couple of moments when Terry’s speed got a little breakneck (we do need to actually hear the words).

The approach was nicely contrasted by the Act 2 opener, “The Bells” (Poe’s second-most-famous poem), in which directors Amy Zsadanyi-Yale and Carol Fischer chose to accent the music instead through a kind of choral reading, filled with echoes, restatements and a trio of solo turns. The results were effective and creepy, owing to a complete commitment by the performers.

The evening also featured a bit of backstage drama. In “Never Bet the Devil Your Head,” Tad Cruz performed a last-minute fill-in as Cyrus, carrying the script with him. Cruz possesses such a natural presence and rhythm of speech, his character seemed no more unusual than the modern equivalent, those people who remain attached to their iPhones all during conversation. It also helped that most of what Cyrus says is insane. Cruz delivered these lunacies with an exaggerated calm that reminded me of Jack Black.

Paul Hastings gave the scene another natural presence, playing the ill-fated gambler Toby Dammit with an affable bluster. Nancy Hatlo-Donnelly chimed in with Toby’s deliciously scary white-trash mother. The only chink in the piece’s armor is Renee Hardin, who as Cynthia, the storyteller’s straight-woman, offers funny physical reactions but gives the impression of thinking about her lines before speaking them. (Drawing another musical parallel, this reminds me of certain rock drummers; a drummer should never look like he’s thinking.)

A similar case comes soon after, in the story “Ligiea.” As Vincent, Isaac Lopez presents a striking figure, but fails to properly present the illusion of listening to his scene-mates before delivering his lines. (And the women out there will say, “Of course not – he’s a man.”) This is a marked contrast to his two wives, Ligiea and Rowena (Elizabeth Reyes and Nicole Keith), who are both completely natural in their parts and also remarkably beautiful (say what you will about Vincent, he’s good with the ladies). The ending, a bit of body-swapping lip-synch from the grave, is supremely haunting.

“The Cask of Amontillado” is the weakest of the stories in terms of suspense, but contains perhaps the most arresting image: a man bricked into a hidden recess to die. The acting here was solid and well-paced throughout, and the Carnaval outfits (particularly Fortunato’s jester outfit) lent a festive prelude to a morbid outcome.

“Masque of the Red Death” provided an excellent example of dynamics in speech. As Prospero, Tad Cruz showed a tremendous range, from calm demeanor (the prince denying the danger of the plague terrorizing the countryside) to raging hysteria (the same prince realizing he’s the next victim). The contrast comes with his princess, Giovanna. Lora Chuang begins stridently (call it a double forte) and stays right there, offering no shape to her vocal line, no change  – and change is the driver to character and drama. I also enjoyed the vigorous fight between the prince and death before the former hit the floor.

The performance of the night is the last, Cristi Bocci in “The Tell Tale Heart.” Here, the dynamics are played to the hilt. As the murderous caretaker Ana, Bocci plays even and calm through most of her chilling account, then climbs an electrifying crescendo as her victim’s heart taunts her with its impossible beating. Joe Antonicelli aids the effort with a sympathetic portrayal of the victim, Mr. Larson.

Zsadanyi-Yale does a good job of adorning her set with Poe iconography - haunting branches, a raven, a tombstone, a hearth - but leaving the space free enough to accommodate all of the stories.

Through Oct. 27 (midnight performance Oct. 26) at West Valley College, Studio Theatre, Saratoga. $10-$12. 408/741-2058.

No comments: