Mad Cat's Halloween Treat
In more than a few ways, producing live theater is akin to staging a military campaign, involving rapidly changing logistical considerations of time and personnel and never enough money. Generals must marshal their limited resources, placing assets where they will be the most effective. That also is the way it is with theaters, for good or ill. Some companies opt to spend their shekels on sets and costumes but forgo extra rehearsals. Others pay more attention to the décor of their restrooms than the effectiveness of their performances. But ultimately the test of a stage production is not the quality of the playbill print job or valet parking but the ephemeral transaction between actor and audience. That doesn't necessarily require a lot of money, but it does demand effort and imagination. A textbook case in point is Mad Cat Productions' new project, Portrait. If you expect the accouterments of comfortable playgoing, look elsewhere. The parking at the theater, the Miami Light Project, is decidedly spooky. The sightlines aren't great; the seating has only two rows, and that second row has limited visibility. The complimentary wine is not Château Haut-Brion. But this production zeroes in on what matters most: detailed, nuanced performances; inventive direction; and a low-tech, high-impact production style.
Portrait is a new play, a world premiere by the company's resident playwright, Ivonne Azurdia. Though not credited in the production playbill, it is based on a short story, The Oval Portrait, by Edgar Allan Poe, the nineteenth-century master of the macabre. The original, very brief tale is an early prototype of the classic supernatural thriller and focuses on a wounded gentleman who, accompanied by his valet, stumbles onto an abandoned chateau one dark night. There he learns about a strange portrait of a young woman that he finds in a dark, turreted bedroom. Apparently her artist husband was so obsessed with painting her portrait that he neglected to realize her time on Earth was ebbing away even as her likeness came to life on the canvas. It's a cryptic, disturbing vignette, typical of Poe's brooding style and somewhat autobiographical: The author's wife wasted away from tuberculosis. Its looming, Freudian portent is certainly appropriate for the Halloween season, when the nights get long and the season turns older and colder.
The Mad Cat rendition of this story is much more than an adaptation; it's a reinvention, adding names, motivations, and psychological depth to what, in the Poe original, are merely vague character sketches. The first half of the play focuses on the young woman in the portrait, Elise, and her troubled marriage to intense artist Malcolm. Malcolm brings his bride to the family chateau, where he plans to install her as his companion and muse. To keep her away from household drudgery, he hires a meek, careworn servant, Parsons, to handle domestic affairs. But Malcolm becomes increasingly obsessed with his painting, while Elise pines for company and a little light in her sunless life. She turns to Parsons for companionship, and, despite the chasm of class and household function, the two begin a tentative friendship. Malcolm decides he will paint Elise's portrait as an artistic challenge, and she complies dutifully, though wilting in life even as her portrait blooms.
The second act jumps years ahead to the beginning of the Poe story. Instead of a nameless narrator, Azurdia has created Capt. Von Stewart, a blustery, somewhat roguish ex-military man on the run from creditors. Helped by his valet, Peter, the captain holes up in the now dilapidated chateau, where they encounter Parsons, still caring for what appears to be an empty house. But soon the captain encounters the ghost of Elise and realizes he can't leave until he discovers what has happened to her. Azurdia's script employs the basic story line and borrows some of Poe's language in the dialogue, but her work broadens and deepens the original with plenty of menace and psychological resonance in the relationship between Elise and Malcolm. And Parsons is a wholly original creation, a man whose growing fondness for his employer's wife threatens his livelihood and his sense of order in the world.
Director Paul Tei stages this production with a general's eye for maximum impact and is decidedly successful. With few physical elements -- a couple dark, heavy pieces of furniture and some simple props -- Tei evokes rather than displays the moldy old mansion. His staging is clear and simple. He also has mined considerable humor amid the dark goings-on: The blundering antics of the captain and his valet are quite droll, and a highly inventive, amusing bathtub scene offers real comic relief. Tei's staging is graced as well by inventive design contributions, notably a moody sound design and original score by Nate Rausch and the work of Travis Neff, who does double duty as both lighting and set designer. Neff sculpts space with light, creating interiors that warp and change with the light cues. This phantasmagoric sense, ably abetted by Rausch's aural architecture, is exactly right. Malcolm's estate may be grand, but it increasingly becomes a fun house where one can lose all sense of proportion and direction.
These assets aside, the chief pleasure of Portrait is its acting ensemble, which is the focus of this production and, we may assume, the company in general. Each actor or actress's performance is nuanced, bringing to life many emotional layers. Samara Siskind's Elise is a difficult role, the adored canary who realizes her gilded new home is nevertheless a cage. Elise's progress is a scary descent into helplessness and death, and Siskind takes us there, moving from sweet innocent to frightened, helpless soul. When she returns as Elise's ghost, the actress is especially unsettling. As Malcolm, Tei brings an underlying sense of menace and a solid physicality that is strongly reminiscent of the young Orson Welles. Ken Clement as the captain and Michael Vines as his valet are thoroughly engaging, and their timing is excellent: They really seem as if they have known each other for years. The cast is anchored by the work of Kevin Reilly, who plays the haggard, beaten Parsons. Reilly has a knack for acting in the silences. It's what he doesn't say that speaks so clearly, the mute emotions of a romantic heart trapped in a life of subservience.
A few minor flaws mar Portrait. The staging is bogged down by abrupt blackouts and set changes that slow the pace, especially in the first act. This seems unnecessary, especially when Parsons is available to move the furniture and the airy space allows for a flow, an overlap, from scene to scene. Tei's performance feels a bit less detailed than the others, an understandable imperfection, because he must direct himself and as an actor lacks some of the objectivity and invention he as director clearly brings to the scenes in which he does not act. The play itself could use a bit more development to add more conflict and payoff in the second half. It is significant that Parsons, Azurdia's one completely original character, is really her secret protagonist, the character with the longest and most affecting emotional journey. In the current version of this script, Parsons tends to fade in the second act, in deference to the captain, Poe's original protagonist. Should Azurdia continue to develop this material, Parsons could become more central to the plot.
Such debate and speculation is to be expected from a new production. Like wine and human beings, plays need to mature. If Mad Cat continues to develop Portrait, improving and reviving it in years to come, this play could become a dandy Halloween tradition.
As Halloween approaches, South Florida theaters provide treats for children. For example the Fort Lauderdale Children's Theatre presents The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, a stage adaptation of Washington Irving's spooky classic. The Fantasy Theatre Factory serves up Little Monster Tales, four short plays from well-known children's authors; the Miami Shores Performing Arts Center hosts this one-day event. And it may not exactly be Halloween scary, but the Hollywood Playhouse spins out a fantasy tale, E. B. White's Charlotte's Web. See "Stage Listings" for details on these upcoming events.
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