Review: Drama After Dark at Portico Art Space

Drama After Dark: A Night of the Macabre with Poe and Gorey has been ensconced at the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino for so many Halloween seasons that the event seems bound by blood to the venue; however, the annual show has, on occasion, moved to other locations, such as the Victoria Gardens Cultural Center in Rancho Cucamonga and even the Los Angeles Zoo. Last weekend saw Drama After Dark filling the Portico Art Space with its signature collection of staged readings, once again adapting its macabre entertainment to a new setting, this time a church.

That's right: Portico's Art Space in Pasadena was actually church  - or, rather, a complex containing church, chapel, courtyard, and various other rooms. Though the exterior grounds lacked the atmosphere of Huntington Gardens (no scurrying in the dark along pathways illuminated only by artificial candlelight), Portico offered some advantages: the smaller area made it easier and quicker to get from one performance to the next without getting lost among swamp iris and water lilies; plus, the venue allowed the use of real candles, providing that inimitable flicker that helped set the scene for the grim tales by the two Edgars, Poe and Gorey.

Best of all, the interior spaces were marvelously suited to the performances. A small, dark room crammed with books stood in for the chamber of an abandoned chateau where a traveler encounters "The Oval Portrait." The arches of a chapel simulated arched vaults of Montresor's palazzo in "The Cask of Amontillado." The church with its high ceiling was very nearly typecasting for the titular manse in "The Fall of the House of Usher": when the story's narrator told the audience, "The windows were...at so vast a distance from the...floor as to be altogether inaccessible from within," he was literally speaking the truth.

Drama After Dark 2019
Nathan G. Johnson and Maria Arvinte in "The Cask of Amontillado"

Of course, the setting is only a frame; what matters is the painting within. As usual, the performers (including some new faces) nailed their roles. Of the ten performances running repeatedly throughout the evening, we sampled five (six if you count the one double bill as two):

  1. "Gorey Stories." This was the most fun we have had with this set of grim poetry, read with tongue in cheek - or, more precisely, with deliberately outrageous French accents - by a trio of "silly actors" (Michael Coleman, Jude Evans, Mat Lagerman) led by their domineering mistress (Tally Briggs). The highlight was hearing Gorey's "The Wuggly Ump" rendered in three-part harmony.
  2. "The Tell Tale Heart." As the crazed murderer, Atonio Chicco affected an almost nerdy appearance and demeanor that created a splendid visual irony: could such a harmless-looking young man have committed the horrendous crime to which he confesses?
  3. "The Cask of Amontillado." In a novel touch, Montresor was portrayed by a woman (Maria Arvinte). We didn't catch any subtext for this (a la the female show's female narrator of "The Masque of the Red Death), but it did create an interesting dynamic: with Fortunato (Nathan G. Johnson) an imposing presence literally towering over the diminutive Montresor, it made sense why the latter would resort to subterfuge rather than a duel to settle her vendetta.
  4. "The Fall of the House of Usher." A slow burn without the fevered tension of "Tell Tale Heart," this is one of the greater acting challenges. It's almost all mood, building to hysteria only at the end. Actor Finn White sold it.
  5. Double bill of "The Oval Portrait" and "The Raven." The former is one of Poe's cryptic tales, ending abruptly and leaving the reader to dwell on the implications - which is not necessarily conducive to a dramatic reading; fortunately, the room in which the performance was set gave Jane Jacobs an opportunity to make a dramatic exit, closing the door to provide a sort of final punctuation mark telling the audience the story was over. (Some still didn't get it.) "The Raven" is so famous we almost expected the audience to recite the lines along with Richard Osborn, but his tortured, glowering performance eventually cut through the material's familiarity, building to that wonderful, doom-laden finale.

After we had watched these five performances, another deficiency of Portico's Art Space became apparent: because there were fewer spaces, only a few performances were running simultaneously; consequently, at 9:30pm, the only shows starting were two we had already seen that evening, "The Cask of Amontillado" and "Gory Stories." At the Huntington Gardens distance has sometimes presented us from getting to every story we would like to see; at Portico's, timing stood in our way. Fortunately, the five we saw were more than enough to make the experience worthwhile.

Drama After Dark is a one-night-only event, so interested viewers will have to wait until next fall for another opportunity. Whether the show will return to Huntington Gardens is unknown: the venue presented a rival event this season, Huntington After Dark; it's possible they may do so again. It would be unfortunate if Drama After Dark were pushed out of its long-time home by an upstart clone; nevertheless, as fine a venue as Huntington Gardens has been, Drama After Dark's stint at Portico proved it can fill any space with its macabre glory.

All photos by Bob Teichmann

Drama After Dark 2019 Rating
4

Bottom Line

Drama After Dark’s 2019 performance, which took place on November 2, fit neatly into Portico’s Art Space, and the cast was as strong as ever. However, we missed the extra layer of atmosphere provided by the grounds of the Huntington Gardens, where searching in the dark for the performance spaces was one-fifth the fun, so we’re giving this year’s show four out of five stars.

Credits: Creator & Artistic Director: Tally Briggs. Co-Producers: Kelie McIver, Dr. Jude Lucas, Doug Rynerson. Pit Stage Manager: Kelly Rennie. Cast: Finn White in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Derek Media in “The Black Cat,” Jane Jacobs in “The Oval Portrait,” Richard Osborn in “The Raven,” Jane Longenecker in “Berenice,” Dean Lapas in “The Pit & The Pendulum,” David Phillip Fishman in “Imp of the Perverse,” Antonio Chicco in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Heather Dara Kennison in “The Masque of the Red Death,” Maria Arvinte and Nathan G. Johnson in “The Cask of Amontillado,” Tally Briggs, Michael Coleman, Jude Evans, Mat Lagerman in “Gorey Stories.”

The address of Portico Art Space is 2033 E Washington Boulevard in Pasadena. The website is: porticosartspace.org. No word on whether Portico’ Art Space will host the show next year or whether Drama After Dark will return to Huntington Gardens. For updates, check Facebook.com/DramaAfterDark.

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.