Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Raven (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Thinking of Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven, images of a single actor in black reciting meter with sonorous tones spring naturally to mind. But this being a production by Zombie Joe, I felt confident something quite different was in store.

And I was right!

First, the performance piece (a more precise descriptor that "play" in this instance) consists not only of Poe's most famous poem but also one of his so called "lesser" short stories.  "The Oval Portrait" lacks a direct plot per se, at least in the same way as other works by America's first great poet. It feels much more like the kind of anecdote shared by candlelight, a weird event that sends subtle shivers up one's spine. Which more or less is precisely how Zombie (who directed) does it.

In the dark, single points of light appear. Like candles. And faces appear one at a time (at first) to recite the story word for word, about a man taking shelter in a storm and finding the painting of the title. More, he finds a book that tells the history of that work of art's creation. By the time (some) lights come up, we're deep in the experience of the tale and the ensemble way of its telling.

Several of the cast I've seen before. Indeed, I saw only two faces in the Chorus (for lack of a better word) unfamiliar: Katie Lynn Mapel is a tall brunette with a very expressive face. Tim McCord is an older, thin gentleman with a subtle but firm stage presence and compelling eyes. Oriko Ikeda (also seen in Rebublic County) and the rest of the ensemble virtually re-enacts "The Oval Portrait" (a story a little bit more creepy and tragic when you look at Poe's actual life) as something akin to dance. In retrospect, it made me want to see Zombie direct a Greek Tragedy in much the same way. But I digress.
Photo Credit: Zombie Joe

The second qualifier I have about the show is a musical interlude between "The Oval Portrait" and a similar rendition of "The Raven." Here I want to make clear Christopher Reiner's music itself is quite good as was his performance of it. But it felt as if it went on too long, and my own belief soon arose that the cast were all making some major costume and make-up changes backstage (I was right). Given that the first piece united voice, movement and music so well, getting just music alone for as long as we did interrupted the flow. Somewhat. My own suspicion--some kind of visual element seems needed at that point. A dancer maybe? Let me be clear--I liked the music but in context it felt as if the show stumbled here for just a minute or two. Given the experimental nature of the piece--overall a very successful one, at least so it seemed to me--perhaps Zombie might mount a different version some other season? As he does Urban Death and Attack of the Rotting Corpses? A thought, anyway.

I've one other point to make about the talented Mr. Reiner, but if I make it at this moment it assumes too much importance. (See what I mean about context and rhythm?)

Let me turn instead to "The Raven" portion of The Raven. Again, done as an ensemble dance/recitation by the entire company and (as suspected) with a startling array of costumes and make-ups. I've seen many and many a reading of this poem, from Vincent Price to Christopher Walken to The Simpsons and Christopher Lee, but this is now officially one of my favorite versions! Everyone did their jobs very well, but the two who kept my attention most were Sebastian Munoz and Donna Noelle Ibale. The whole cast (including Redetha Deason) did a fine job but they were the standouts in this section, not least because they seemed to more or less represent the narrator and title character respectively. In particular--just technically--let me mount praise on two excellent decisions. First, not to emphasize the infamous refrain, which of course by now everyone expects. Second, recognizing and bringing out that the narrator of this poem is clearly insane. Without that fact, much of the power of the poem often bleeds away.

Photo Credit: Zombie Joe
And it ends on a laugh! Mr. Reiner ends the show on a song, one wonderfully appropriate and snerky given the poem we just saw.

Now here is another couple of nuances I feel misfired. Nowhere near enough to derail the production, but not up the standards of the rest of this very good show. First, Reiner's singing persona (he also does good songs using the lyrics of Poe's "Song" and "Alone") doesn't match the rest of the cast. They bring a vivid nightmare groutesquerie to life while he merely has a pleasant singing voice performed well and clearly. I felt that part of the performance needs something more. Finally, the show stopped rather than ended. Or at least it felt that way, and I suspect maybe that was the intention but if so some small matter of timing didn't quite carry it off.

Please note--please!--my critiques here focus on nuance. This piece is so close to perfect in so many ways, the minor wrong notes stick out. Overall, I found the whole performance very worthwhile! Very entertaining! Even Poe-etic!

The Raven plays Friday nights at 8:30pm until July 26, 2013 at Zombie Joe's Underground Theater at 4850 Lankershim Blvd, (just south of the NoHo sign), North Hollywood CA. You can reserve tickets at 818-202-4120

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