In his adaptation, the playwright, William W. Jackson, has taken the spare narrative of Poe's mood piece and built on it a story of social collapse, humanitarian crisis, and failure of leadership that is quite dramatic and effective.
As the play opens, we meet Dr. Kilgore (David Kaye) and his daughter Sangrid (Emily Craig), traveling across Prince Prospero's plague-ravaged kingdom in order to speak to the Prince about plans to combat the pestilence. They encounter a family on the road, homeless, and in need of food and medical care, whose attempt to petition the Prince has been brutally repulsed by his thuggish bodyguards.
After succoring the travelers, the Kilgores arrive at the castle, and the Doctor succeeds in bullyragging his way past the guards "nobuddy sees da Prince" stonewall to gain an audience.
As we are introduced to Prospero (James Dragolovich), we find the spoiled, selfish, and spiteful Prince terrorizing his advisor into finding a way for him to loot the people's "social security" trust fund, Prospero already having closed down and diverted funds for medical care and education. Kilgore attempts to appeal not only to Prospero's better nature, but to his economic sense. There follows a lengthy and intense debate, in which Prospero vents his issues. His mother died at his birth. His father, King Victor, never got over it, and spent most of his remaining life travelling. He died of the Red Death after assisting the sick, for which reasons Prospero hates and despises "the people." He perceives that Victor cared more for "the people" than for his own son, and that exposure to the people's "filth" brought about his death. (Throughout the play, characters' ignorance and fear of contagion is a repeated theme.)The argument ends with Kilgore unsatisfied, but, as he leaves, Prospero smirks that he will take one of the Doctor's suggestions--he will quarantine himself in the castle and wait for the plague to burn out outside.
This sets up the second act, which begins with the completion of Prospero's heartless preparations, and the arrival of his guests. These include other Poe characters such as "Rodrick Usher," and the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart," whose soliloquies reveal that the gathering is already beginning to decompensate into despair, debauchery, madness, and murder. When Prospero announces his intention to take Sangrid as his unwilling bride, the "blood wedding" becomes the climax in which "Darkness and Decay and the Red Death (hold) illimitable dominion over all."
At nearly three hours, the play is long, but literate. There are some indulgences that could have been cut. A scene that serves only to have some Poe-named characters (Metzengerstein, Annabel Lee, William Wilson) walk through does nothing to advance the plot. "Milo Rudge's" drunken ranting goes on too long. And, at the climax, there is a bit more running and screaming than strictly called for.
Quite a bit of the acting called for melodramatic acting of an over-the-top sort, but that's Poe for you, and largely enjoyable. Dragolovich as Prospero gave the most nuanced performance, ringing the changes of anger, arrogance, humor, determination, and willfulness. We were reminded favorably of Peter Dinkage as "Tyrion Lannister" in "Game of Thrones." He was well supported by Kaye and Craig as the Kilgores; by Jerome Maywald as Rudge, and by Samantha Paige as Mortdala, Prospero's sadistic and disdainful chief of guards.
The Carte Blanche company made excellent use of their small space, managing some ambitious set changes quite handily. Costumes and props had a timeless appearance, combining both Renaissance and Steampunk elements with some characters having netbooks and cellphones, which worked.
We enjoyed this performance very much, and we will be looking at upcoming productions. Although by no means all of their shows are in the "Grand Guignol" mode of this one, their handling of the material makes me very interested in the production of "Sweeney Todd" slated for next April.
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