KC Fringe opening night: ‘Red Death’ and ‘Dangerous to Dance With’

07/19/2014 7:00 AM

07/19/2014 9:32 PM

Those who have attended performances at KC Fringe though the years expect to see something unusual, but few of us have seen anything quite like “Red Death.”

This one-act chamber opera from composer Daniel Doss and writer Bryan Colley offers a concise 40 minutes of vivid gothic horror filled with impressionistic images. The show, directed by Tara Varney and choreographed by Amy Hurrelbrink, is almost as much dance theater as it is opera.

This adaptation of “The Masque of the Red Death” by Edgar Allan Poe tells the tale of Prince Prospero, who retreats to his castle for a night of revelry with his entourage and servants while a plague ravages the countryside.

According to the program, Colley’s libretto borrows not only from Poe, but from the Roman poet/philosopher Lucretius Carus, Renaissance essayist Michel de Montaigne and Ecclesiastes in the Bible, but I confess that I’m too meager a scholar to comment on Colley’s choices. I can say that his libretto is loaded with compelling images.

Doss’ lush score, performed by pianist Michalis Koutsoupides, is darkly romantic, often returning to a haunting waltz-time motif. The music is so compelling that you can easily imagine what it would sound like performed by a full orchestra.

Tenor Nathan Granner plays Prospero with Shakespearean flair and his voice, as usual, is mesmerizing. Soprano Devon Barnes is impressive as Prospero’s unnamed servant, whose perception of the futility of existence draws her magnetically toward death.

Many Fringe shows are bare-bones affairs but this one shimmers, thanks to a delicate, evocative lighting design by Shane Rowse and elegant costumes designed and created by Varney and her collaborators. A cadre of dancers create dreamlike stage pictures.

In essence, this piece is a 19th-century meditation on death, but the combination of music, dance, creative lighting and inventive costumes will linger in the viewer’s memory.

Edgy satire somewhere in Missouri

Bill Rogers’ “Dangerous to Dance With” is a frequently amusing satire about a farmhouse full of misfits somewhere in the Show-Me State. The catalyst for much of the action is Harris, a paranoid playwright who routinely wears a gun in a shoulder holster and who is an exceptionally mean drunk.

Also in the mix is a former circus acrobat now using a wheelchair, a young actress who performs on her own pornographic website, a loudmouth neighboring farmer and a New Jersey plumber.

Rogers integrates explanatory backstories into the action to explain how this bizarre collection of personalities came to occupy the same space. He also creates some major offstage characters, including a bull with a sharp pair of horns.

Director Diane Bulan has assembled a talented cast, anchored by Victor Raider-Wexler as Harris. Raider-Wexler is one of the city’s best character actors, and he inhabits the role with gruff authority and a shrewd sense of comic timing.

Kelsea Victoria McLean is a charismatic presence as Jill, the website performer who is recovering from a sexually traumatic event three years earlier. Coleman Crenshaw is smooth and relaxed as Nick, the acrobat who was injured after meeting Harris’ challenge to “dance” with the bull.

Vincent Onofrio Monachino has fun as the blustery farmer who is intimidated by the collective intellectual acumen of the residents. And Jim Hopkins delivers a brassy portrait of Joe, who may or may not actually be a plumber.

At its first public performance, the actors’ timing was occasionally imprecise, and stylistically they weren’t all on the same page. At times the plot gets pretty dense and Rogers doesn’t always balance the relationships, unseen characters and backstories as clearly as he could have.

But the writing is often witty. Overall this is an interesting, edgy example of comic playwriting.

To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to rtrussell@kcstar.com.

KC Fringe continues at various venues through July 27. For a complete schedule, visit www.kcfringe.org. “Red Death” and “Dangerous to Dance With” are both running at the Off Center Theatre in Crown Center.

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