The Tell-Tale Heart--a musicabre
nytheatre.com review by Kyle Ancowitz
August 11, 2006
Danny Ashkenasi, a FringeNYC veteran with three consecutive forays in the festival, now takes on three simultaneous job descriptions in The Tell-Tale Heart: a musicabre, an operatic solo show based on Edgar Allen Poe's horror classic. As adapter, performer, and composer, Ashkenasi plainly possesses a broad array of talents, but in spite of the beautiful music and taut storytelling, he is marginally outpaced by his own ambition.
The text is drawn more or less directly from Poe's short story. In it, the narrator tells how he methodically schemes to murder an unidentified elderly acquaintance, and then dismembers and hides the body, all the while insisting that he's not insane. When the authorities arrive to investigate, he breaks down and confesses after hearing the deafening sound of his victim's heart beating from beneath the floorboards. Or is it only his imagination? Poe knows, but you can draw your own conclusions.
The outstanding feature of the production is the original score, performed with sensational flair by three cellists, Ella Toovy, Tara Chambers, and Maria Bella Jeffers. The tone nimbly and thrillingly shifts from dark romance to horror-film themes to ingeniously rendered sound effects, like white noise and the indispensable thundering heartbeats. There's even one number (where the narrator invades the victim's bedroom with superhuman sloth) which I can only describe as "Gothic Swing." Ashkenasi himself sings the libretto throughout the show's tightly packed 45 minutes.
Unfortunately, three cellos is the chamber music equivalent of a wall of Marshall stacks, which is another way of saying that the music was surprisingly loud—loud enough to give Ashkenasi trouble making himself heard. He seems to have a great ear, but his vocal skills were either run down from rehearsal or too weak to contend with the imposing sonic energy onstage. The competition from his accompaniment forced him to belt out the words and sound increasingly hoarse and uncertain throughout the piece.
Meanwhile, Ashkenasi's acting is serviceable, but somewhat short on nuance. We know that Poe's anti-hero is crazier than Mel Gibson handcuffed to a police cruiser, but Ashkenasi drives the point home with some familiar crazy-acting gestures, like maniacal laughter and a refusal to blink his eyes. His signature posture is a kind of frozen push-up position that he strikes on the back of his chair while singeing the crowd with his laser-beam glare. True, it's the kind of thing only a crazy person would do. Still, I can't help but think that Ashkenasi could have done more with less and rendered Poe's narrator more elegantly by allowing him to appear more composed, or at least a little less wacko.
In the end, there is a lot of genuine artistry on display in this musicabre that shouldn't be missed. It's worth catching for the music alone, not to mention Poe's tale, which, as I mentioned, is classic. And keep an eye out for Ashkenasi companion piece, The Pit and the Pendulum, coming soon to a dungeon near you.