October 21st, 2017
Review by Kelly J Clark – Showbill.ca Managing Editor
A crimson flood sweeps across the land, promising a slow, putrid death to anyone unfortunate enough to be caught outside at night. A lone house on a hill offers shelter from the sweeping Wormwood plague, but a night with the keepers of the castle may be even riskier than the Red Death itself!
Launch Pad Theatre is a great company that always brings the unique and unexpected to their craft and this show marks its tenth production at Craigdarroch Castle. This is fitting, as the cast seems very much at home–also fitting given the setup for the night.
The less you know going in the better, but know that every person gets a different experience. The play is set up as something of a key party, wherein each guest draws a differently coloured key that will lead them to a wholly unique set of macabre stories performed from the works of Edgar Allan Poe. This review covers only a single path: that of the red key (note: keys are drawn per person, so if you are there with a friends or date, you might want to draw the same colour).
The show starts strong, with the festivities called to life by David Radford’s manic charisma. The man is brilliant and it seems there isn’t a role that he can’t play–so long as it possesses at least a shard of wickedness. From start to finish, Radford engages, enthralls, and delights as Prospero, the king of the castle. He fully commits to the character, even in small moments and banter with his “guests,” in a way that from a lesser actor would be pandering. Radford is no such actor.
In another room, audiences discover that Jared Gowen’s voice is worthy of its own ovation. Its tremble, timbre, and tone as he somberly recites “Berenice,” a tale of teeth and terror, is as rich as honey. Perhaps on a different coloured path, Gowen has more of a presence, but those who picked the red key are lessened by only seeing him once. During the initial performance, one audience member seemed to swoon at his rendition. His presence is a startling counterpoint to Radford’s, and future Launch Pad Theatre shows will give them more shared stage time.
The final solo performance of the red key is Diana Nielsen’s rendition of “The Telltale Heart,” which she calls forth like a woman possessed. Her performance wild and lunatic, her delivery powerful and deranged. Subtext gathers beneath the surface as she speaks and seems to imply that this may not be her character’s story, but rather some insidious force working through her. The audience begins to wonder if there is something more to the show, some connective tissue we had been at first too blind to see. Could this be the first clue into unraveling the mystery of these seemingly unconnected monologues?
Sadly, no. From this moment forward the show passes into its final act and begins to slow. Whatever anticipated connection that the audience may have imagined linking the disparate plots never materializes and the play ends suddenly–so much so that the audience is left bewildered and shocked in very much the wrong way. The final scene, arguably, deserved to be dragged out a few more moments, with a newly introduced figure better explained or incorporated into the narrative. The menace that has permeated the castle throughout the play’s duration dissipates immediately on its demise–which is the only real weakness in an otherwise gripping and impressive production. If the dread within those final moments were directed outward toward the audience as well as the cast, perhaps the impact would be a bit stronger, or at least more lasting. Isn’t that what we want from a horror story?
Still, there is much to be lauded in this production. The momentum from those first startling moments propels audiences through the night with a mix of dread and raunchy anticipation. The staging and lighting design are also thoughtful and effective, even while being constrained by the respect for and rules of the historic site. The choice of lighting colours for each room is particularly clever, with each colour signifying a different pervading emotion in the associated tale: orange for paranoia, blue for sadness, pink for obsession.
The Bottom Line
Overall, Red Death is a fantastic way to kick off the Halloween season. The cast and castle have just the right amount of creepy, classy, and character to carry the night, though the interwoven monologues at times feel a little loose at the seams. It would be wise to escape into the castle from the cold night air–if you can find a ticket.
Mature audiences suggested.