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'The Medium' and 'The Masque of the Red Death' 

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Dark Victory

Death gets its due in two Cinnabar productions

By Julia Hawkins

This is the time of year when pagan fears arise, when the earth seems to be dying, the sun is moving farther and farther away, and darkness dominates. Ancient rites ensured the return of the sun and the transformation of melancholy and death into joy and rebirth. But first, as the pagans understood, we have to accept death as integral to the process of rebirth.

Appropriately for the season, the two one-acts at the Cinnabar Theater are about attempts to foil or conquer death--and the foolishness and danger of such attempts.

In The Masque of the Red Death, an insane Prince Prospero (played by Bernard Lee with sinister dignity) seals off his castle from the plague ravaging his kingdom and waits for it to pass. Meanwhile, he entertains his favorite courtiers at an endless ball featuring music, jugglers, and Eastern dancers.

In this adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's famous short story by Quicksilver II Theater Company director Deborah Eubanks and the Cinnabar's Jereme Anglin, the costumed guests recite Poe's text and pantomime the emotions of gaiety, alternating with unease and finally terror.

This is an appealing and confident production. The costumes by Lisa Eldredge are fantasies of courtly dress, with enormous, grotesque wigs and extravagant ball gowns and waistcoats. The actors' faces are doll-like caricatures of 17th-century fops and courtesans, who behave as foolishly and thoughtlessly as their appearance implies they would.

The talented advanced acting class of Cinnabar provide the courtly entertainment: Jeff Boyette offers elegant juggling, and Erin Baldassari, Lizzie Sell, and Zoe Speidel beguile the audience with belly dancing.

Played by Corey Schroeder, the grotesque hunchback Butler provides grisly comedy and the sinister element that anticipates the arrival of the last, uninvited guest--the Red Death, a role performed with uncanny serenity by Audrey Meshulam.

The Cinnabar Opera Theater's The Medium offers a different kind of horror. This powerful musical experience is composed by Gian-Carlo Menotti (perhaps best known for his popular Amahl and the Night Visitors) and performed by music director and pianist Nina Shuman and a string orchestra of seven musicians.

Madam Flora, a charlatan medium, sung by Lisa van der Ploeg (an electrifying actress with a warm, dusky contralto), tricks her clients into believing they are communicating with their dead children.

Assisting mom in this deception is her daughter, Monica, sung by Meghan Conway (a sweet soprano who is also a marvelous actress). She dresses in white lace and appears behind a scrim as a ghost of a little girl for one client and makes the sounds of a laughing little boy for another.

The action takes place in a postwar Europe filled with thousands of refugees, and Madam Flora has taken in from the streets a mute gypsy orphan (played by Gabriel Sunday) to operate the table so that it shakes and rises during seances. But Madam Flora drinks heavily, and she projects the fears arising from her guilty conscience onto the boy, beating and berating him for imaginary offenses.

Mrs. Cobineau, sung by Susan Witt-Butler, and her husband, sung by William Neely, have been coming once a week to hear their 2-year-old drowned son laugh, as they think, happy to be in the Other World. Witt-Butler and Neely bring a dignified trust and earnestness to their roles, so we can well believe their willingness to be deceived. The new client, Mrs. Nolan, is sung by Bonnie Brooks with heart-stopping, hair-raising yearning.

These two productions add up to an exciting double bill with special appeal to audiences with a taste for the macabre.

'The Medium' and 'The Masque of the Red Death' continue Nov. 9-10 at 8 at the Cinnabar Theater, 3333 Petaluma Boulevard N., Petaluma. Tickets are $22. 707/763-8920.

From the November 8-14, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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