Monday, Oct. 31, 2011

Nightfall With Poe And The World's Stage

Old stories told in a hauntingly empty space

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Given how many shows were opening this past weekend, I had to make a decision as to which to go to . . . and invariably I ended up missing a show at Off The Wall (still disappointed about that) in favor of seeing the latest from emerging theatre company The World’s Stage. The company’s Artistic Director is now entering the BFA program at UWM . . . making The Word’s Stage similar cachet to theatre companies like Youngblood and Uprooted, which came out of  connections made at UWM. The World’s Stage’s latest Nightfall With Edgar Allen Poe is lmost exclusively the work of UWM BFA students.

Judging from the production, the company has reached a level of maturity. After staging productions of light comedy—Neil Simon’s Star Spangled Girl and Greater Tuna and the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s Complete Works of Shakespeare, the group edges over toward a much more moody drama—and carries it off with a stylish kind of emotional gravity.  

Adapted for the stage by Eric Coble, Nightfall With Edgar Allan Poe was originally staged elsewhere, presumably with more money for production value than the World’s Stage has here. BFA Costume Design student Shelby Kashian has worked with a limited budget to develop simple, iconic costuming. Beyond that, there isn’t really a set here . . . the fascinating thing about the production is how effectively it uses empty space.

Empty space is often overlooked as a tool for a theatre production simply because it’s not available. Most of the theatres in town simply don’t have that much empty space to work with. For this particular production, The World’s Stage is using the Auditorium Theatre in the Marian Center—a vast, cavernous place that isn’t always the best place to see a show. As had been the case on a number of different occasions with Soulstice Theatre productions, the Worlds’ Stage has the audience placed onstage in chairs positioned to form a makeshift thrust stage.

When Soulstice used the space like that, they would always put up walls to lock-in the intimacy of the space that was now being used as a studio theatre. Director Sherrick Robinson has opted not to use the walls. The action is entirely open to the auditorium. Sit on either side of the makeshift thrust and you’ve got the action of the play on one side of your field of vision and the big empty space of the auditorium on the other side. It’s remarkably haunting. Robinson use the be cavern of the auditorium as an echo chamber to amplify things in dreamy shadow. Extremes of emotion are shouted out into the big, vacant house—they echo around the emptiness. It’s a very, very stylish effect that cost  the World’s Stage nothing . . . but it’s a lot more effective than anything that would’ve been rigidly constructed on a much bigger budget.

The atmosphere of the theatre is a really, really big reason to see this show, but I realize I’ve gotten this far and I haven’t even mentioned anything about its substance. The playwright Eric Coble transfers four tales of Poe to the stage in an exceedingly straightforward manor. We open with the classic—The Raven. Ben Rogaczewski plays Poe with voice and presence alone—there has been no attempt to affect that oh-so universally recognizable image of the man. Having discarded that much, we are free to dive right into The Raven without having to do all of that tedious work of bridging the gap between actor and icon. The rhyme and meter of the  Raven slice out into the shadows beyond the stage as performed by various members of the ensemble. As a spoken word piece, it’s handled respectably with some rather effective pacing. 

 

The Raven opens the door for the other three pieces. Next we get The Fall of the House of Usher . . . and with ambiguous period costuming it would’ve been all too easy to play Poe’s classic tortured depressive as some kind of emo punk, but that image of the character is solidly avoided thanks to interesting choices made on the part of UWM BFA acting student Kolton Christenson. Rather than playing the character as an intolerable depressive, Christenson goes for more of a restless figure. There’s a kind of irritable fatigue about his performance that makes him seem much more tortured. It’s as though his fascination with bleakness is more of an appreciation of restful oblivion. It’s best in its most subtle moments . . .   Christenson never overplays it. For his part, the narrator of the piece (named Edgar in the script) is played with kind of a charmingly uneasy wit by Zach Zembrowski. It’s a fun deviation from the traditional feeling of Usher that might not satisfy purists, but I liked it.

The show returns from intermission with Telltale Heart and The Pit and the Pendulum. Pit is done with a strikingly visceral flair. What William Butler Yeats referred to as “an appeal to the nerves by tawdry physical affrightments,” works pretty well onstage here thanks to an open embrace of stillness, silence and shadow as the story gradually unfolds. Telltale Heart feels a bit weird there being no older actors in the production, the Old Man is played as a relatively virile-looking, young Jesse Stenbroten. The relationship between himself and his murderer is thus kind of skewed to feeling more like . . . like we know his murderer is serving him in something of a subordinate position . . . which makes it feel more like an employer/employee dynamic gone horribly wrong, which is actually a really interesting take on the original premise. On the whole a very interesting end to the show.

The World’s Stage Theatre Company’s production of Nightfall With Edgar Allan Poe runs through November 5th at the Auditorium Theatre in the Marian Center for the Non-Profits on 3211 South Lake Drive. For advance ticket  reservations, visit Brown Paper Tickets.

 

Next, The World’s Stage  moves to the Tenth Street Theatre for a production of Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman. 

I absolutely love that World’s Stage is doing this one . . . there’s real darkness in Nightfall, but it ends up looking kind of like a children’s bedtime story when compared to The Pillowman. It’s an Irish play from 2003. And it’s dazzlingly dark. McDonagh was inspired by the darker, original versions of fairy tales and wrote things a bit more darker then them. Some captivatingly disturbing stuff here . . . The World’s Stage brings it to the Tenth Street Theatre early next year. 

 

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