>THE TELL-TALE HEART AND THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH by Ramesh Meyyappan

>reviewed by kenneth kwok

>date: 12 aug 2004
>time: 8pm
>venue: the guinness theatre, the substation
>rating: ***1/2

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

                           
>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.
 

>>>>>DEATH BECOMES HIM

I admit to being no connoisseur of mime or silent theatre, either as audience member, reviewer or practitioner, but I suspect that Singaporean talent Ramesh Meyyappan is indeed the real deal. His many international credits aside (this production has already played in Britain, Sweden and Austria and will run in New Zealand in 2005), when you watch him in action, you are constantly in awe. His discipline and control over every movement of his body brings to mind a gymnast or an acrobat. Whether he is miming realistic actions or exaggerating them for comic or dramatic effect, it is clear to the audience that there is an attention to detail in the mind that is flowing unadulterated into the body.

Following his Life! Theatre Award nominated turn in 'Mistero Buffo' (2002) which also received a rave review from this reviewer, Meyyappan has gone from Darius Fo to Edgar Allan Poe with equally impressive results, especially considering the challenge of presenting Poe's dark, dense text onstage in any form.

Admittedly, both productions also possessed the same central weakness, this time made more severe because of the more serious nature of the piece: Meyyappan, notwithstanding his ability, charisma and charm, sometimes overlooks the difficulty an audience faces in following a narrative arc through visuals alone - especially considering the audience is a modern rabble fed on noisy television programmes and movies. At times, I felt like I was watching a foreign film with no subtitles but fine acting performances. While it was often possible to lose the plot only to pick it up again because of the linear and sparse nature of Poe's plots, the play nonetheless required a concentration on the part of the audience that did not always pay off in the end. Granted, the actor cannot be expected to do all the work, but when there is so much to enjoy onstage, it is a pity that the audience cannot simply sit back and appreciate Meyyappan's dazzling performance without having to worry about keeping up with the plot. This meant that there was, sadly, a limit to the emotional engagement that one could develop with the story and characters.

>>'His control over every movement of his body brings to mind a gymnast or an acrobat.'

The first piece of the double bill, THE TELL-TALE HEART, suffered more from these symptoms than the second because it was considerably longer, running at around 30 minutes. A straightforward murder story in which a manservant kills his master only to be undone by his own guilt when he starts to imagine he is hearing the dead man's still-beating heart, it did, however, benefit from the creative use of music and lighting and from being staged on a bare set, which helped to create an appropriately eerie atmosphere.

It was against this absent backdrop that Meyyappan then twisted and turned to take on the play's different characters as if by magic, and it was most impressive how cleanly he enacted each metamorphosis. When playing the hunch-backed old master with the evil eye, for example, he would maintain the character to the very last second before switching to the manservant so suddenly and completely that the characters never once bled into each another. It has to be said that the almost cartoonish performance style he chose for the piece and the occasional attempts at humour to create texture and breathing spaces were sometimes too much at odds with the macabre elements of the piece, but generally, this remained an effectively told "ghost" story.

The more successful of the two one-man pieces he performed was THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH which was not only shorter (half the length of THE TELL-TALE HEART) and better paced, but also, I feel, adapted with more imagination and thought.

With THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, Meyyappan's storytelling actually casts new light on the many facets of the story and its themes. In Poe's original, Death enters through the locked iron gates of the castle to claim its owner, Prince Prospero who had hoped to keep the plague at bay. However, Meyyappan's Prince Prospero, whom he plays naturalistically and with an appropriate ferocity and aching desperation, has graphic nightmares about dying instead and this more clearly illustrates Poe's theme of the inevitability of death for, here, Death penetrates not locked gates but a mind unwilling to face it.

Meyyappan also wisely chose to edit out the scenes of revelry and banqueting to keep the mood of the piece consistent, but his most impressive piece of adaptation was the more subtle and poignant ending he introduced, with Prince Prospero merely growing old rather than succumbing to the plague; to some, after all, that may be the greater fear.