A belated ode of appreciation to annual theatrical evocation of the macabre
This year's edition of Drama After Dark: A Night of the Macabre with Poe and Gorey was electrifying. This is hardly surprising - experience has taught us to expect the best from the Guild of St. George's annual theatrical event. However, we had wondered how many more times we could shiver while watching a show that remains largely unchanged from year to year. Having seen it all before, would we enjoy seeing it again? Our concern was rapidly overwhelmed - drowned in an icy deluge of chills - as the performers magically summoned the grim horrors and macabre whimsy of the two authors in the event's title. Drama After Dark is definitely worth revisiting.
Having said that, it is not possible to truly revisit Drama After Dark - because of the nature of the show, each experience is unique. Every year, more or less a dozen performances are offered in half-hour intervals, from 6:30pm to 10:00pm, staged throughout the buildings and grounds of the The Huntington Gardens in San Marino. In the time available, it is impossible to see all performances, so each audience member creates his or her own experience by selecting which stories to see - and in which order. This year's program included three sets of "Gorey Stories," "The Pit and the Pendulum," The Tell Tale Heart," "Berenice," The Cask of Amontillado," "The Fall of the House of Usher," "The Masque of the Red Death," "The Black Cat," "The Imp of the Perverse," and a paring of "The Raven" and "The Oval Portrait."
With such an enticing smorgasbord, making selections could be difficult. "Imp of the Perverse" had not been performed in several years, and we had not seen "The Masque of the Red Death" since 2013, so those topped our list, along with "The Cask of Amontillado," a perennial favorite. We rounded out our personal playlist with "The Pit and the Pendulum" and "Gorey Stories II & III" - a full evening's worth of grim and ghoulish entertainment, which still left ample time to enjoy a drink at the Black Cat bar in the Shakespeare Garden.
Drama After Dark 2018 Review: The Imp of the Perverse & The Cask of Amontillado
Drama After Dark 2018 offered a few surprises, thanks to new cast members who provided fresh variations on familiar material. In a couple of cases, the newcomers did not deliver their lines with the precision of the veterans, but they recovered from the occasional lapse, which in a way made the performances more spontaneous. In the first instance, David Phillip Fishman stumbled midway through the evening's first run of "The Imp of the Perverse," pausing as if he had lost his place. We can only imagine what was going on in his head, but whatever he did to hit the reset button, it worked. Fishman had been slightly halting up to that point; he sailed through the rest with confidence, bringing the story to a close with utter conviction. (This is what the conductor in James M. Cain's novel Serenade called "trouping," when he praised a singer who'd recovered from a flub, telling him that anyone can make a mistake, but when "you use your head" and "pull it out of the soup," then "my hat's off to you.")
The second instance involved "The Cask of Amontillado." This is the Poe adaptation that comes across most like a play, with two characters exchanging dialogue and acting out the story (the other Poe performances consist largely of murderer's confessing directly to the audience). We have seen "The Cask of Amontillado" several times; this year, Louis Esposito extracted more black humor than we remember in his predecessor's performances. Esposito's Montresor obviously relished recounting his act of revenge to the audience, inviting a certain complicity as viewers chuckled along with him. As Fortunato, Montresor's unfortunate victim, Gary Lamb likewise struck a note of levity: taking a cue from Poe's description of the characters (costumed with a "conical cap and bells"), Lamb played the part as a drunken fool, given to comically broad gestures, especially the secret Masonic handshake. "The Cask of Amontillado" is always one of the highlights of Drama After Dark, and this year was no exception; however, there was a brief awkward moment near the end, when Esposito fumbled for a line. Fortunately, Lamb filled the gap with another outburst from Fortunato, giving Esposito the opportunity to recover by delivering another of Montresor's wicked chuckles. After that, it was smooth sailing to the horrifying conclusion. (Again, "my hat's off to you.")
Drama After Dark 2018 Review: The Pit and the Pendulum & Gorey Stories
"The Pit and the Pendulum" is atypical of the Poe stories in Drama After Dark: its protagonist is a victim, not a murderer; no one is killed; and there is a happy ending (oops - spoilers!). The presentation is also slightly different from the other Poe stories, most of which use minimal staging. Like "The Cask of Amontillado," "The Pit and the Pendulum" gives the performer some leeway to act out the tale. Most notably, when the lights go out in the story, the lights go out in the venue; the actor, location betrayed only by his voice in the dark, circumvents the room, just as the character blindly circumvents his prison. Later, the performer lies on a slab like a sacrifice upon an altar while describing the slow, inexorable descent of the titular pendulum, with its razor-sharp edge swinging closer and closer to his chest.
"The Pit and the Pendulum" lacks the intensity of, say, "The Tell Tale Heart," but actor Cylan Brown generated suspense and brought the show to an exultant climax with an enthusiastic reading of the last-minute rescue: "An outstretched arm caught my own as I fell, fainting, into the abyss. It was that of General Lasalle. The French army had entered Toledo. The Inquisition was in the hands of its enemies!"
The ending was a gratifying change of pace from the other stories, sending a surge of adrenaline through the audience, followed by a sense of welcome relief. Another change of pace was "Gorey Stories II & III," which offered a humorous contrast to the Poe performances - though admittedly the humor was of the most woeful sort.
The joy of this presentation came from watching the cast deftly weave in and around each other, stepping forward to deliver demented couplets from several Gorey stories ("The Listing Attic," "The Evil Garden," etc), then sliding quickly away to make costume changes before returning as yet another of the seemingly endless series of ill-fated characters.
Unfortunately, the outdoor setting was not always conducive to easy listening. A simple dramatic gesture - an actor turning his or her head slightly away from the audience - could render a line unintelligible to all but those seated in the front rows. In a more conventional play, missing a word or two might not ruin the experience, but when a character's fate is rendered in a single sentence, missing the last word can ruin the joke. Nevertheless, we enjoyed our fair share of ghoulish chuckles while listening to such unfortunate outcomes as: "Great-Uncle Franz, beside the lake, is being strangled by a snake."
Drama After Dark 2018 Review: The Masque of the Red Death
Saving the best for last, we now come to "The Masque of the Red Death." Like "The Pit and the Pendulum," this story is a bit unusual among Drama After Dark's Poe adaptations, to the extent that it is not a first-person narration by a killer - or is it?
[Insert dramatic music cue here.]
Seriously, the mystery of who is telling the story is a question that Poe deliberately left unanswered: most of the text is third-person omniscient, but from time to time a narrative voice coyly reveals its presence, speaking directly to the reader with such phrases as "In an assembly of phantasms such as I have painted..." Since all the human characters in the story die, it is hard to imagine who this all-knowing "I" is: Poe? God? Perhaps the Red Death? The genius of Drama After Dark's interpretation is to provide an answer while not explicitly spelling it out.
Actress Heather Dara Kennison eerily recounted Poe's story of Prince Prospero, who secrets himself and his closest associates in a remote castle to avoid the ravages of the titular plague sweeping his kingdom. The sly joke is that, throughout the proceedings, Kennison exploited Poe's occasional first-person phrases ("But first let me tell of the rooms in which it [the masque] was held") to establish rapport with the audience, until she finally revealed her true identity by changing a single word in Poe's text:
And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. She had come like a thief in the night.
Robed in red, she could have been no clearer had she said, "I had come like a thief in the night."
By now, it is fairly common to interpret "The Masque of the Red Death" as an allegory about the inevitability of death. What Kennison brought to life in a way I had not fully appreciated before was the sheer effrontery of Prospero's efforts. He is not merely a selfish, decadent nobleman celebrating his own good fortune while his less fortunate subjects perish; his every action is a giant, symbolic Middle Finger - a mocking and defiant "You can't get me" - directed at the Universe. Such hubris - especially such male hubris - is virtually begging to squashed, and the Red Death willingly obliges; that the agent of Propsero's destruction turns out to be feminine adds a turn of the screw that is surprisingly resonant. Poe's story ends on a note of overwhelming doom: "And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all." Transforming that into a moment of grim triumph - in which the audience simultaneously shuddered and silently celebrated Prospero's (well deserved) demise - was an impressive piece of dramatic alchemy.
Perhaps I am reading too much into this, but great stories and great performances not only entertain; they evoke. Thoughts and emotions rise, like spirits summoned by a Necromancer. Drama After Dark is deliberately short on spectacle; it traffics in an older form of storytelling, one that establishes a more intimate connection with the audience. When it works - as it usually does, but especially so in the case of "Masque of the Red Death" - it's as vivid as a hallucination, as binding as a spell.
Drama After Dark 2018 Ratings
As vivid as a hallucination, as binding as a spell – Drama After Dark’s annual “Night of the Macabre with Poe and Gorey” should be on every Halloween fanatic’s must-see list.
Drama After Dark: A Night of the Macabre with Poe and Gorey is a one-night-only affair. This year’s presentation took place on Saturday, October 27th. Barring unforeseen circumstances, it will return next October to the Huntington Library, Art Collection & Botanical Gardens at 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino 91108. For more info, visit: facebook.com/DramaAfterDark.