Posted on Jul 22, 2014
5 out of 5
The Fringe, bless its heart, brings us lots of work-in-progress: artists taking advantage of the chance to stage new work, to see how new scripts play before live audiences: simply staged, cut to suit the Festival's crowded schedule — gems in the rough. But here's one that I'd call a gem, cut and polished, all its facets working together: "Red Death" is an operatic diamond.
I blame opera’s social trappings for burying its roots as popular entertainment. Bugs Bunny parodies, if not direct personal experience, leave us with nightmare fantasies of being trapped in swollen Wagnerian productions that just won't end. Never fear! "Red Death" packs its powerful punch in record time: I clocked Friday's opening performance at just 32 minutes.
This will leave you time to admire Bryan Colley's libretto, available on the "Red Death Lyrics" sheet on a table by the Off Center Theatre door. Its story is adapted mainly from Edgar Allan Poe's familiar "Masque of the Red Death, with credited infusions from more esoteric sources (Lucretius, Montaigne and Ecclesiastes). This gem is set by composer Daniel Doss and brought to brilliant musical life by two outstanding singers — tenor Nathan Granner and soprano Devon Barnes — with pianist Michalis Koutsoupides filling in for the orchestra.
But opera is the original multi-medium, and director Tara Varney, ably supported by choreographer Amy Hurrelbrink, has marshaled an artistic team that has these three musicians surrounded and outnumbered. Varney's family, with Hurrelbrink's help, has costumed a cast that includes five fine dancers. Chelsea Anglemyer, Josh Atkins, Tyler Parsons and Tiffany Powell join the choreographer herself in animating that silent threat that's inspired Granner's Prince Prospero to attempt their protection as guests in his party. Dance sequences flow smoothly into and out of the singing as the dancers support and advance the action. Actor Coleman Crenshaw needs no words — only his sinister, masked presence — to spoil the fun as the Uninvited Guest. But no spoiler alert is needed: even if you've somehow missed reading Poe, the title itself reminds us of the inevitable.
Colley has brought his economical art not only to the libretto, but also to the stage setting, subtly enlivened by Shane Rowse's dramatic lighting. The lyrics sheet spells out his scheme rather more distinctly than it has felt in performance. Varney's direction brings all these elements and actors together in a performance that embodies the essential power of opera.
Which you experience this week, quite cheaply and without any dress code. You will not leave the theater humming any of Doss's tunes. But you will be impressed by what a company of hard-working artists can do with a little space and a little of your time as their audience.