Like all of Edgar Allan Poe's stories, The Cask of Amontillado is dark and psychological. The motive behind the murder central to its plot is never revealed. The author only describes the final deadly encounter between the narrator Montresor and his victim Fortunato. It's death by immurement: being trapped inside a space with no exits.
Local choreographer Marissa Alma Nick's adaptation of Poe's macabre story, Cask, returns to the stage this Friday for the sixth time since its first performance in 2007. Nick's twisted, evolving take on the tale is becoming a Halloween tradition.
"Halloween was always a big thing for me," Nick says. October 31 was the birthday of her great-grandmother Alma Deila, for whom both Nick and her company are named. Back when her great-grandmother was alive, Nick says, "her birthday was the party. It was always strange, funny costumes, almost Dalí-esque, a very bizarre Halloween costume party." Nick's family still celebrates Halloween as a major holiday, and Cask is an homage to both her great-grandmother and Nick's love of the spooky event.
As a day dedicated to the dead, Halloween is an apt time to celebrate departed family. It's also an opportunity to indulge our hidden alter egos, the parts of us that are dangerous, dark, and violent. For Cask, Nick was inspired, in part, by psychologist Carl Jung's shadow theory. "The idea of this primal part of yourself, and the more you suppress it, the more it's going to expose itself in unexpected ways," Nick says.
Nick has direct and personal experience with the terrors that live in the mind. From the age of 13, she watched both grandmothers surrender to dementia and Alzheimer's. She says both sides of her family have experienced severe mental illness over generations, driving her to explore the mind in its full register.
"I think my own fear has allowed me to openly explore these things that scare me. And mostly what scares me is myself."
In Nick's reading of Poe, the struggle isn't a simple murder; it's an internal struggle of the psyche. "I always feel like there's this duality," she says. "That's the other thing that draws me to The Cask of Amontillado. You can see Fortunato and Montresor as two characters, but it's almost like one person, a Jekyll/Hyde situation. I think you can find yourself in both characters very easily."
Cask was staged for the first time in 2007 when Nick was a student at the University of South Florida, in Tampa. She brought it to Miami in 2011. Its first Magic City performance was set at Adal Del's 6th Street Container, a tall, narrow exhibition space just off Calle Ocho in Little Havana.
Nick was fascinated by 6th Street Container's strange layout, rusty beams, and questionable floor. She called on friends such as visual artist Magnus Sodamin to create the set design. Performers Pioneer Winter and Aisha Duran starred alongside her in the show.
"I always loved that initial idea, what's happening in the mind," she says. "Aisha was Montresor, and [my character represented] what was happening inside her mind. Pioneer was Fortunato. It was very immersive. The audience just walked through the space while the show was going on. My friends Rainer [Davies] and Dion [Keith Kerr IV] did the music. It was really bizarre what we did in there."
This year's Cask again takes artistic liberties with Poe's original story by casting both main characters as women: Juliana Trevino as Montresor and Sasha Caicedo as Fortunato. And as in the very first 2007 version, Nick adds a group of women she calls the Tenebris. (Tenebris is Latin for "the darkness.") The women collectively represent the mind of Montresor in the act of committing a murder. This gives her the opportunity to shape the story on all-female terrain.
"Watching Juliana play Montresor is so fulfilling," she says. "She's laughing and crying at the same time, and completely satisfied and not at all, and needs more — it's not enough."
Fortunato, the victim in Poe's story, represents the other side of the spectrum. "I think Sasha's portrayal of that role is a deep exploration of that part of us as women that never feels free to say no. She verbally doesn't start screaming for help until the very end, when it's literally too late. And that was very intentional."
The sensibilities in Cask are shaped by Nick's affinity for Japanese horror movies. She cites filmmaker Takashi Miike's psychological and disturbing thrillers Audition and Ichi the Killer as inspirations. Both are brutal and perverse in the extreme.
In Cask, Nick uses Japanese Shibiri bondage ropes to restrain Fortunato. The stark red of the ropes stands out against the character's skin as she is bound up and restrained before her death. The Tenebris are dressed in beige tones, covered with baby powder and spray bronzer, to reveal their bodies in a creepy way.
Nick delights in the grotesque aspects of the show. One year, when the piece was staged in an empty office space in downtown Miami, she banged her head on a concrete pillar during the performance. "It's a very brutal show. It's a murder," she recalls, "and Pi [Winter] and I did not hold back." Blood dripped from her head onto the white floor. The audience just assumed it was part of the show, and at the end of the performance, an ambulance showed up.
In the current staging, the audience can tap into their own capacity for violence and danger. Viewers will be arranged in a circle, forming a barrier that keeps Fortunato trapped.
In past versions of Cask, Nick witnessed the reactions of audience members as the Fortunato character tries to escape her fate. "She threw herself on somebody last year," she recalls. "I was like, 'Oh, man, this person is going to give in.' And they literally just sat there and stared at her, begging, pleading." After the show, people described their surprise at the pleasure they felt while watching the character suffer.
With Cask, a frank depiction of physical abuse, Nick also explores the duality of victim and abuser. "What is it to be a victim?" she asks. "Do you place that title on yourself? Is that even a real thing?" And on the flip side, she says, "I'm also trying to understand the abuser, what baggage they might have and how can they objectify somebody so much to the point where they are actually physically hurting them and going to kill them. Those are the emotional connections for me.
"It's not a bright story," Nick says. "There's no happy ending."
And Cask has grown ever more intense through repetition, as Nick continues to push her engagement with the psychological depth of the story.
"I was able to get there over the years, because even the first few times, it was like, let's kind of maybe kill her. So with life experience and testing the waters, it has gotten to the point where she hangs upside down at the end. It's a beautiful death."
For this year's performance, the audience is encouraged to dress in costume. "It's part of the holiday," Nick says, "and it adds to the strange madness."
8:30 p.m. Friday, October 28, at Miami-Dade County Auditorium On.Stage Black Box, 2901 W. Flagler St., Miami. Visit almadancetheater.com. Tickets cost $25 for general admission, $50 for VIP, and $10 for students and artists with promo code and ID.