Poe-erful Stuff: “The Masque of Red Death” at Shaking the Tree

By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly

Dread, mania, obsession, grotesquerie: those were the first four characteristics that leapt up for me when thinking of Edgar Allen Poe. It’s a list that might make a tough sell for a standard two hour drama, but one that was captivating, and bewitching in the anthology “The Masque of Red Death” (at Shaking the Tree through Nov. 22nd).

The show is made of segments, based on stories of Poe, which vary in their faithfulness, tone, and even their presentation. For some, the audience is seated, for others, they’re moved around to different areas of the theater. The effect is stimulating in its disorientation, generating the kind of spine-tingling doubt that infuses the best of the writer’s stories.

“It’s just a play,” the audience thinks, “but . . . ”

Photo by Gary Norman

Such entertaining discomfort is present at the show’s start. The audience, given masquerade masks, is invited into the “ballroom,” which features no chairs, and is populated by mingling actors. Soon Prince Prospero (Matthew Kerrigan) informs us we’re his guests, safely protected from the plague ravaging the “paupers” outside the palace walls – the “red death.”

As he showed in “Boys in the Band” a few years ago, Kerrigan is a master imperious menace. He creates here a terrifying portrait of a haughty, whimsical, possibly sadistic ruler, such that it’s a relief when he announces he’ll be treating us to a series of “oddities” for our enjoyment, and the curtains are pulled back to reveal seats and a stage.

In addition to the framing device, which recurs throughout the program, the play features eight episodes – seven Poe stories and a dark, funny monologue from Poe himself, about his misunderstood life. Some stories, such as “The Spectacles” and “Tip of the Finger” (based on “The Tell Tale Heart”) feature clever, modernizing touches, while others are quite faithful to their sources and periods.

Some segments provide a fun eureka moment, when one realizes, “Oh, it’s ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’!” or some other story, remembered from American Literature class. A few stories, such as the sensual, claustrophobic “Usher,” based on “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether,” a terrifyingly topsy-turvy tale, set in a post-insurrection mental hospital outshine the others, but what accrues throughout the program, is the disorienting, exhilarating sense that Poe’s spirit has been engaged with and transmitted with real invention and joy.

The “Masque’s” cast is uniformly versatile and convincing. In addition to Kerrigan, Joshua J. Weinstein stood out in his turns in “Usher” and “Tip of the Finger,” perhaps because his appearance and voice effortlessly conveyed the Poe’s aristocratic Victorian worlds. Amanda Cole likewise shone throughout, particularly during “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether,” in which she chillingly employs the kind of officious medical speak we all live in terror of to some degree, while either bluffing in an impersonation of a doctor, or engaging in gross malpractice.

Up to the end, when a curtain call is preempted by another appearance by Prince Prospero, ushering in a much more nerve-wracking, macabre finale “The Masque of the Red Death” keeps its audience engaged and off-kilter. Director Samantha Van Der Merwe has created a singular entertainment, worthy of its source material. Let it haunt you for two hours, and, unlike those of most of its characters, your memories will be sweet and fond.

“The Masque of Red Death” at Shaking the Tree through Nov. 22nd. http://www.shaking-the-tree.com/on-stage.html