Masque of the Red Death review: Partying with Poe

Shaking the Tree Theatre's collaboration with Playwrights West puts a modern twist on classic horror.

Masque of the Red Death begins even before you enter the building, when masked actors greet you, intentionally a little too enthusiastically, at the door, welcoming you to the festivities. The greetings continue as you ascend the stairs to the box office, where you’re handed a fetching, delicately detailed black or white mask of your own and ushered into a large space occupied by a few dozen other masked patrons, mingling with similarly masked actors (so that it’s hard to tell who’s in the show and who’s paying to see it) encouraging us to dance and loosen up, have a good time. It’s like walking into a crowded party filled with vaguely creepy strangers — an ideal Halloween production.

Kerrigan and Thompson in "Masque of the Red Death." Photo: Gary Norman.

Kerrigan and Thompson in “Masque of the Red Death.” Photo: Gary Norman.

That’s the frame director Samantha Van Der Merwe has constructed for Shaking the Tree Theatre’s ingenious collection of eleven episodes written by local Playwrights West authors, all based on stories by the great American writer Edgar Allen Poe. Reminiscent of horror anthology films or TV shows like Rod Serling’s old Night Gallery series, Masque drops us into Poe’s classic 1842 title story, involving a party, a plague, and a prince indifferent to the suffering of the 99%. (The writers shunned overt contemporary references to Ebola and today’s accelerating inequality, but they resonate anyway.) Van Der Merwe cleverly repurposes the original story’s setting — the party happens in several rooms of different colors — to provide the respective venues for each playlet.

After the audience members all arrive, the party’s host, Prince Prospero (wittily played by Matthew Kerrigan), takes charge, explaining that we’re all here to be entertained as a relief from the plague raging outside, and we move to our seats. As at any party, some of the encounters turn out more interesting than others. Claire Willett’s static “The Demons Down Under the Sea,” inspired by Poe’s Annabel Lee, dissipates the opening slot’s anticipatory tension; despite the actors’ best efforts, the poem resists drama. But the next scene, Andrew Wardenaar’s version of “The Pit and the Pendulum” ratchets it up again via the most minimal means of all — darkness — using only intermittent low strobe lighting (on Joseph Gibson, who carries the solo role mostly unseen) and a fiendishly clever low-budget method of evoking the scurrying of rats all around the audience. Moving the audience literally into the midst of its laudanum-fueled action raises the claustrophobic tension of Steve Patterson’s ending glimpse of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Such smart directorial touches abound in a production that, though devoid of extensive props and special effects, nevertheless mostly succeeds in immersing us in Poe’s eerie world.

Van Der Merwe’s originality even extends to that usual dead zone, the intermission. Instead of shuffling around the lobby, idly chattering with strangers and sipping coffee, the audience is directed to the wine bar across the street, which admittedly breaks the spell but at least maintains the dark party vibe. Then, light-saber wielding ushers guide them back to Poe’s world for Act 2, which opens with the next installment of Patrick Wohlmut’s framing “Masque.”

Joseph Gibson in "Pit and the Pendulum." Photo: Gary Norman.

Joseph Gibson in “Pit and the Pendulum.” Photo: Gary Norman.

In fact, concept and direction actually prove stronger than Poe’s source material, which seems longer on evocative language and atmosphere than on actual drama. Even the otherwise entertaining adaptations of relatively stronger stories, like Aleks Merilo’s “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether” (in which you can’t tell the doctor from the crazy patients, the inspiration for plenty of 20th century writers) and Matthew Zrebski’s “Tip of the Finger” (from “The Tell-Tale Heart,” though not the whole story) drag. And despite Amanda Cole and Nicole Accuardi ‘s delightful comic turn with Gibson, “The Spectacles” shows why Poe is most remembered for horror rather than humor.

The show excels when it sprinkles 21st century irony and references (Madonna, Led Zeppelin, etc.) over Poe’s overheated 19th century romanticism — most prominently in Kerrigan’s commanding performance as Prospero and as the author himself in Ellen Margolis’ “That Smell,” inspired by Poe’s too-short life. Kerrigan strikes just the right balance between it’s-all-a-joke playful, seductive, and sadistic. His spontaneous banter with the audience flickers in and out of Poe’s world and into our own, keeping his scenes feeling fresh and modern instead of musty macabre antique.

Along with Kerrigan’s triumphant performance, Beth Thompson’s riveting embodiment of death personified is even more impressive considering that she spends the show behind her Death mask. Though the acting is inconsistent, other players — especially Katie Watkins, Joshua J. Weinstein and Andy Lee Hillstrom, who in Debbie Lamedman’s “Pluto” somehow makes you think a mousy milquetoast could be capable of uxoricide and, er, kittycide — turn in some good work in one or more roles.

Granted, the play’s oscillation between past and present sensibilities, between wry, even tongue-in-cheek camp, and horror, sometimes muddles the emotional impact of a given scene. Moreover, sometimes the narratives didn’t quite add up, maybe because omitting exposition kept the pace pounding, and the playwrights assumed that we’d fill in missing details from our memories of the stories. In any case, the more you know (or remember) of the originals, the more you’re likely to enjoy the show. Even the slightly clunky ending of the framing “Masque,” which also wraps up the production, succeeds more in tying up loose ends than providing a taut climax. But it’s Kerrigan’s sly acting and Van Der Merwe’s creative concept that really make this Poe party one of the season’s most memorable productions.

Just as the show begins before you enter the door, it also ends with a shudder after you walk outside, as a spooky figure keeps a promise made at the end, transfixing exiting patrons with a cold, implacable stare as they leave the theater, but not the memory of Poe’s eldritch world, behind.

The sold-out run of Shaking the Tree Theatre’s Masque of the Red Death, which ends November 22, makes a fitting death rattle for the company’s old space as it moves into new digs with its next production. But let’s hope this collaboration between some Oregon’s best playwrights and one of its most inventive theaters lingers even longer. Whether they bring back Poe again, or Lovecraft or Stephen King or even originals by Oregon authors, maybe this party play could become an annual Halloween tradition.

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