Edgar Allen Poe's Masque of the Red Death...
nytheatre.com review by Heather Lee Rogers
September 3, 2008
First there are intense jungle drumbeats, followed by a spooky organ fugue. Then a small figure slowly creeps out to the center of the stage. She is dressed much like a waiter with a white shirt, black pants, black tie, hair-slicked back, except that her face is painted grayish white with lots of black smudged around the eyes (like we used to do for haunted houses in high school). Then, after an uncomfortable amount of time and music, another figure, dressed and made up exactly the same, lurches out just as slowly and meets the first center stage. They each wear their faces in an appropriately haunted deadpan stare. And stare. Then, after more music, a third figure slowly enters the same way, looking the same and joins the first two. So at first I'm liking the suspense, loving the weirdness, staying with it. By the fifth entrance I'm bored. So are the folks around me. They're asking each other around me, in loud whispers, "How long do you think this will go on?" "Do you think that's the last one?" Sixth entrance, seventh entrance. . .eighth entrance. . .and so it goes with this production of Edgar Allan Poe's The Masque of Red Death & The Tell-Tale Heart & The Bells as performed by Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group at the St. Luke's Theatre.
This first bit of the show I described is the introduction to "The Tell-Tale Heart". The performance of this story is characterized by amazing movement work by this tight ensemble. There is a lot of bizarre scuffling around and people tend to glom together into unified masses which move in strange ways. It's a unique, distinct, and compelling physical language. The macabre nature of their work hovers between comical and scary. I was never quite sure if they were aiming to amuse me with camp-horror or to actually frighten me. There is a lot of ghoulish staring which can break into a frenzied grin (or an ill-conceived musical number) at odd moments. But often the physical movement sequences occur between the words and action, like a pause in which we wait for the story to continue. And these scuffling/staring sequences last for a long time. This seems to be a conscious experiment of Zombie Joe's but a play can only stand so many moments of "let's see what happens if we do this too long!" It's a total killer of the dramatic momentum.
The performance of Poe's poem "The Bells" is in the same style as "The Tell-Tale Heart" but has a more perverse (possibly undead) Von Trapp Family Singers quality to it.
"The Masque of Red Death" has a refreshingly different style. The costumes are more colorful, the acting has less irony and the physicality is frenzied, wanton, and wild. They do a wonderful job of capturing the party-world inside Prince Prospero's castle where he and his guests have reveled for months while the plague rages through the kingdom outside. Here the company's favorite trick is to mash their bodies into each other in a rabid lusty mass of groping, kissing, and licking. This is interesting at first, but the third and fourth time it is revisited, again the story stalls out and we're learning nothing new while we awkwardly wait for them to finish feeling each other up. The ensemble also uses more of the space in this segment of the performance. They begin the party out in the lobby as a bleed-in from intermission, chase each other over the architecture and flow around the audience in their abandon. There is also a random five-minute-long violin solo in this piece; it doesn't add anything to the story but it is technically impressive.
Overall there are great conceptual ideas, physical ensemble work, and production style happening in this show. But unfortunately these take a backseat to pacing and dramatic momentum that seem at odds with their "high impact, fast 'n' furious" identity as stated in the program. Also, I couldn't help thinking that this LA company in their NY debut has misplaced their play in the heart of the Broadway district at prime time for $56/ticket. Zombie Joe needs to take his Underground Theatre (in its self-described "bloody-shoestring" style) downtown to some divey non-theater theater, later in the chilly fall, for 11pm late night showings at $15/ticket, where the locals are more receptive to what's artsy and odd.