Alone on a bare stage (as advertised), Mead recites three pieces from classic literature: an excerpt from Macbeth, a dark comedy by W.S. Gilbert of Gilbert & Sullivan fame, and on alternating dates, either Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” or an excerpt from Dickens’ Oliver Twist. The other three pieces feature poetry by Magus Magnus. Magnus adapts the ancient Greek form of the idyll (a story-poem usually about rural life) for a theatrical context, in order to create a shared imaginary world between performer and audience. Evocative words and images take the place of traditional sets, costumes, and props. The combination of Mead’s background in dramatic recitation of Victorian poetry and Magnus’ reinterpretation of the idyll form makes Murder on the Bare Stage more of an academic exercise than a stimulating theatrical experience, but not for lack of ambition or enthusiasm.
The pieces function on three levels: one, the presence of an actor alone onstage; two, the story the actor tells the audience; three, the psychological life of the character the actor portrays. Murder on the Bare Stage is strong in the first and third aspects, thanks to Mead’s charisma, expressiveness, and understanding of the characters. Mead’s performance, though strong in characterization, is more like a series of audition pieces strung together to highlight his ability to stretch a character as far as possible in a short amount of time. He places so much emphasis on every single word that the words as a whole start to lose their meaning. The storytelling element suffers, weighed down by pathos.
…strong in the details
Audience members whose minds may have wandered during Magnus’ “An Old Soldier Cleans His Rifle for the Last Time” get a shock the moment Mead drops into character for his recitation of “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The comedic piece, “Gentle Alice Brown,” which tells the story of a corrupt priest and a murderous family, is also strong. The inclusion of Macbeth in a showcase about murder is so common it borders on theatrical cliché, but it would be criminal to waste a Royal Academy-trained actor like Mead on anything less than Shakespeare. Magnus’ pieces are fascinating character studies, but lack the same cathartic payoff as the classic works. This is perhaps because Magnus’ imagery, like that of the ancient idylls, is more realistic and less fantastical than that of Shakespeare or Poe.
Murder on the Bare Stage is strong in the details, but weaker in the panoramic view. The show aims to create suspense, but with more emphasis on character than storytelling, you won’t feel too many chills up your spine. Literary enthusiasts will appreciate a new take on an old poetic form, and others less familiar with poetry might learn something new.
Advisory: Murder on the Bare Stage contains adult language.
Running Time: Approximately 60 minutes.
Murder on the Bare Stage played through July 27th, 2013 at the Capital Fringe Festival’s Caos on F Theatre at 923 F Street NW, Washington DC.