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A CurtainUp Review
By Les Gutman
My first impulse in preparing to see Red Death, Lisa D'Amour's intriguing new play and the centerpiece of Clubbed Thumb's Summerworks 2002 series, was to revisit its source "inspiration," Edgar Allan Poe's short story, "The Masque of the Red Death". Poe's is a haunting tale (no big surprise there), long on atmospherics, short on characters and filled with the sort of spooky symbolism that oozes with doom. Ms. D'Amour's work, less about setting and symbols and much more populated, conjures up its own unsettling gestalt.
Red Death is billed as a riff on Poe, but don't expect a mere adaptation of the short story, even in deconstructed form. The play does indeed derive certain markers from the short story (there is a character named Prospero (John McAdams) here, his boat -- which figures prominently in the play -- is called Avatar (from Poe's second line: "Blood was its Avatar...") and toward play's end, those assembled adjourn to a bar called Poe's. But whereas the short story is an allegory about the inevitability of death, an attempt to shun it by sequestration that is foiled as it seeps in, the play introduces one Janes Withers (Maria Striar), erstwhile kindergarten teacher and sometimes lifeguard (its own bit of symbolism), who instead stares death in the face.
Evil in Red Death revolves around the enigmatic "Panel," an extra-legal organization that has cult-like qualities. Jane is a lapsed Panel recruit, and as we first meet her she has become the subject of Panel inquiry, interrogated in a secret location by a "detective" (Robert Alexander Owens), her accusers hidden from view. It seems she's started snooping for her own account, following a trail that leads her to Prospero, his wife Connie (Mary Shultz) and daughter Lucinda (Meghan Love). In a series of locales (each identified by projections) as diverse as Grass Lake, Michigan (something of an epicenter), Golden Sands, Florida, Barcelona, a spot in Texas near the Mexican border, onboard the Avatar and a spa in California, the chase ensues. It's a swarm of mysterious suspense, the further details of which are best left to viewing.
Production elements are particular fine: Alexander Dodge's set incorporates an upstage translucent panel that's particularly effective especially with the scene setting colors of John-Paul Szczepanski's lighting effects. (Color figures prominently in Poe's story, and here as well.) Miranda Hoffman's costumes are excellent, as is Matthew Burton's sound design.
The cast registers convincingly. Maria Striar has the laboring oar, and wields it effectively throughout. Messrs. Owens and McAdams convey interesting nuances as does Mel Jurden as Jane's father. Meghan Love does good work as Lucinda and although Mary Shultz develops Connie's character nicely, she's the only cast member who seems less than fully prepared (at least the night I saw her).
I can't say that Red Death is a brilliant work but it is well written and quirkily compelling, with enough inventiveness to produce a solid evening of theater. Who's good, who's bad, what's true and what's false? You may not get all the answers, but you'll leave with a healthy dose of questions that can take you far in many directions -- hopefully not to a small town called Grass Lake (pop. 642 plus or minus a few).
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