Halloween is a favorite holiday at TheatreNOW, and true to form, this year the dinner theatre is offering a festive show in the spirit of the season: Stephen M. Raeburn’s “Of Monsters and Men”—an adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe’s works for the stage.
Poe is America’s favorite literary brand for Halloween time: Arguably, the father of American horror literature, his stories have terrified people for generations. Raeburn brings together three of the tales: “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” to create a through-line for an evening of frightening storytelling. Raeburn has transported the stories to the American continent and given interrelationships to the characters, changes which make the script cohesive and compelling.
“The Cask of Amontillado” opens the evening with Edwin (Phill Antonino) supervising the last-minute arrangements for a harvest festival. He follows Gladrielle (Kristina Daniel) about with a host of nit-picking questions, that seem to be part and parcel of an old and loving relationship. Meanwhile, in another town, Henry (David Heck) is slowly succumbing to a maddening terror that his Uncle Thaddeus (Skip Maloney) is possessed by a demon. For “The Tell-Tale Heart” Raeburn has given the old and young men a family relationship and an ever-intensifying power struggle. Besides a guilty conscience and a nosy neighbor, Gertrude (Penelope Grover), Henry has to contend with two policemen who actually do their jobs. It’s enough to drive a lunatic over the edge.
If anyone’s worried about the gore factor, this show is not over-the-top blood and guts. Yet, anyone who knows the material (and most people have at least a passing acquaintanceship with Poe) will find bothersome moments. For me the inevitable moment came with Henry stabbing Thaddeus in the eye—I just had to turn away. If anything Heck’s transition from maddened, frustrated killer to calm and collected with balls of steel in the face of the authorities is surprising and convincing—and in line with the source material. Heck is probably most well-known to Wilmington audiences for his work in musicals, but he is a joy to watch onstage in a nonmusical setting.
Actually, part of what he and Antonino do well is make believable the motivations of both men to commit horrific crimes. Because that is the line that we all wonder about ourselves: Could we? Would we? What would have to happen to push us? Antonino is convincing as the local to the manor-born type, who sees himself as preforming a sort of “public service” by walling Fortunato (Ron Hasson) into the cellar. Though, clearly, his high status in life has never forced him to learn masonry skills, he does make the best of it and seals Fortunato to his fate.
Our two unfortunate souls meet each other in a dark wood in one of the scariest places on earth: Canada. Both have fled the scenes of their crimes and Henry is especially interested in visiting an old friend, Dr. Maillard (Skip Maloney), who has an asylum for the mentally afflicted. Here, Raeburn introduces a less well-known story by Poe: “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.” Originally set in France, for the stage adaptation, Raeburn moved it to French-speaking Canada. In doing so, he gave the performers the majority of their dialogue in French. Jef Pollock and Kent Vest, the afore-referenced Tarr and Fether, play the comedy incredibly broadly—making language less a barrier for audience comprehension.
Penelope Grover and Christina Daniel bring two provocative and out-of-control nymphomaniacs to life. Combined with the grunting and chuckling of a not-quite-human animal Hasson creates, the eerie realization that the inmates have (literally) taken over the asylum begins to dawn.
Though perhaps most distubring is the quiet calmness of Maloney. If he would just act crazy, it would be comforting, but his terrifying control ices the cake.
Speaking of cake, this is dinner theatre. I don’t eat lunch in anticipation of evenings at TheatreNOW, and it is because of Chef Denise Gordon. Gordon is in the camp of loving Halloween and her menu pairings reflect that love. Just start with “The Pit and The Pumpkin Pizza.” Punny, right? But, wow, so tasty. It is a winter squash lover’s delight that manages to stay firm and not get soggy in spite of all the creamy vegetables. It is a veritable bounty of yumminess atop a pizza crust that is the perfect blend of firmness and fluffiness.
Or consider “The Masque of the Red Dish.” Gotta love the name, but the food even more so. The whole dish is red. Gordon poached wild salmon in red wine that is absolutely heavenly—especially with a little tang from the red onion and tomato jam garnish. The red beets, mashed red potatoes and cabbage were so filling (and addictive) that by the time “The Tell-Tale Tart” (dessert) rolled around, it was really hard to finish the pumpkin cheesecake. But I tried. After all that savory food, the sweetness is surprisingly refreshing.
“Of Monsters and Men” is a wonderful celebration of the Halloween season, created by a group who obviously and truly love the holiday. Anyone looking for a fun (adult-oriented) way to round out Halloween, this is a great choice.