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Caos on F
Saturday, July 20, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, July 21, 8:45 p.m. Wednesday, July 24, 10:15 p.m. Thursday, July 25, 7:00 p.m. Saturday, July 27, 8:00 p.m.
They Say: “Nail-biting and nerve-wracking. Actor Stephen Mead (London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art-trained) combines his specialty in dramatic recitations of Poe and Dickens with poet Magus Magnus’s approach to theatre of the imagination, for classic and avant-garde thrills and chills.”
“Brilliant character actor” can sometimes feel like a backhanded compliment. It suggests that while I thought your performance was great, I’d never accept you as Hamlet. When given a chance to do bat-shit crazy, though, there are a few performers—-Willem Dafoe, Tim Curry, and the inestimable Christopher Walken– who consistently knock it out of the park in a way that the Brad Pitts and George Clooneys of the world never could. Watching Murder on a Bare Stage, I get the sense that Stephen Mead’s name could be on that shortlist of gifted-at-playing-crazies, had he not forsook the world of spectacle and mass consumption for a stripped-down, poetic approach to live theater.
Mead quite literally bursts onto stage with one such role in the idyll “A Bandit Plots a Murder by the Road.” All raspy whisper, harsh consonants, and bulging neck veins, he curses the sky and plots revenge creating a sinister character that transports viewers off the eponymous bare stage and onto the moonlit streetscape. Sans props, lighting cues, or sound effects, Mead aims to facilitate the audience in a “shared imagining” that fills in the gaps. It’s a lot to ask from one man’s body and voice, but he more than meets the challenge.
The show is a collaboration between Mead and local author Magus Magnus. Magnus specializes in the idyll form, which I knew nothing about coming into the show but which was helpfully explained in detail in thoughtful program notes. Essentially, it is a type of poetry written to be spoken rather than read and relies on the audience to use their imagination to provide the details typically shown through props or costumes to more fully immerse them in the thoughts and world of the character.
I experienced the idylls more as music than as text. If not for the extremely descriptive titles Magnus lends to his work I might be hard-pressed to recount specific details of some of the scenes, but they are hardly the point. In the same way that a great symphony can conjure a broad range of emotions and even narrative without the help of text, the sound was more intoxicating than the meaning of the words. Magnus has chosen a master literary musician as his collaborator who brings out the best in his work.
The most concrete piece of the evening, however, is also its most masterful. Mead’s professional specialty is in recreating “dramatic recitation” performances popular during the Victorian era, similar to a live version of a 1940’s radio program or an audio book we might listen to today. A primary focus is on the work of Charles Dickens, and the evening I saw the show he performed a selection from Oliver Twist (note: Mead alternates this centerpiece performance with a recitation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart.” If you want to see him do Dickens, go on July 21 or 25. For Poe, catch the show on the 20th, 24th, or 27th).
There’s plenty of the same demented rasp and frenzied shouting done so well in the opening piece throughout the Twist performance, and if that’s all Mead could channel it would make for a satisfying-enough evening. But the piece demands that Mead portray a diversity of characters, including a damsel in distress, which he differentiates splendidly and transitions into and out of on a dime. Especially worth noting is Mead’s command of volume dynamics, building from a barely audible whisper to an ear-splitting climax.
As for that Hamlet comment? Mead makes a case that he is leading man material as well, presenting an excellent rendition of a selection from the leading man of another of Shakespeare’s tragedies—-the one actors refer to in hushed tones as “The Scottish Play.”
Murder on the Bare Stage is a very satisfying evening of theater and a fantastic opportunity to catch a brilliant artist in an intimate setting.
See It If: You’ve ever felt like props or lights have gotten in the way of your enjoyment of the performer and the text.
Skip It If: You prefer the films of Michael Bay to those of Michael Haneke.