Mad Cat's Halloween Treat

This entertaining reinvention of a Poe story may spark a seasonal rite

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 is also 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 19th-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 cool.

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.

Paul Tei and Samara Suskind and a portrait of a disturbing obsession
Paul Tei and Samara Suskind and a portrait of a disturbing obsession

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.

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