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State Of The Arts: ‘Masque Of The Red Death’

by Jerome Weeks 16 Apr 2016 9:00 AM

A stage adaptation of a horror story premiered at the Majestic Theatre last week. The creative people involved – composer, performers, video artists, choreographer, conductor and orchestra – were all from North Texas, making this a remarkable movement theater collaboration. Art & Seek’s Jerome Weeks sat down with KERA’s All Things Considered host Justin Martin – and told him it was definitely not what he expected. Our extended conversation:

Justin: So Jerome, what are we listening to?

JWIt’s music by local composer Jordan Kuspa. He was commissioned by Dallas Neo-Classical Ballet for this adaptation of the Edgar Allan Poe short story, ‘Masque of the Red Death.’

You remember the story?

Yeah, it’s about the plague.

JWRight. The plague has come to town, killing everyone, so Prince Prospero hides out in his abbey with a bunch of partygoers. When death does arrive, it goes from color-coordinated room to color-coordinated room until everyone’s dead, including the prince. Think of it as Ebola with more fashion sense. End of story.

Fact is, Poe’s horror fantasies were not that original. He invented the detective story — a great invention, an invention for the ages — but when it came to the gothic, many of the traditional genre markers — the imperious aristocrat, the gloomy castle, the setting somewhere in creepy old Europe, the madness, the supernatural, the blood, the dread, the endangered woman – these were already familiar when Poe took them on. The gothic horror novel in the forms of ‘The Castle of Otranto,’ ‘The Monk,’ ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ and ‘Frankenstein’ had already come and gone in England the generation before. It wouldn’t be revived for another 50 years when the undead crept out of ‘Dracula.’

What Poe did that was original was borrow all this stuff and create the gothic short story. The short story is pretty much an American form, and Poe was its first master, its first great theorist. Read Poe’s tales of horror and then ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho,’ and Poe looks mighty good in comparison. The gothic, it would seem, is best in short, sharp doses.


You probably don’t even like the gothic.   

JWActually …

Well, no, you’re right. Not much. Gothic horror often strains mightily after some pretty obvious emotional effects. You know, pile on the skeletons and the screams until we actually feel something. It takes someone as wildly inventive as film director Guilllermo del Toro to get me interested in another bit of flesh-crawling. But even with Poe’s own attempts to gin up the hair-pulling hysteria in ‘Masque’ (“Then, summoning the wild courage of despair, a throng of the revellers …  gasped in unutterable horror”), the story is simply not that dramatic.  The same thing just keeps happening, room after room. It’s like a particularly unpleasant house tour with an aggressive real estate agent you can’t escape.

Happily fortified with these prejudices, I feared this new stage work was going to be both all very gothy-gothic (black leather! broody performers with scowly make-up!) and rather static.

And … it wasn’t?

JWI was very surprised. First off, this was an incredibly ambitious project. Choreographer Emilie Skinner founded Neo-Classic only five years ago. They’re still a little troupe. But here they were at the Majestic with fourteen performers and a commissioned score played by Syzygy, the sixteen-piece new music ensemble from SMU.

But — back to the gothic.

JWBack to the gothic. All the typical gothic trappings were simply gone. There was just a bare stage with a video screen. The female dancers wore cotton frocks, albeit with chalky, corpse-like makeup. And the choreography often had a crisp, classic clarity to it. There was some sexy rolling around on the floor for a pas de deux with Ilan Nunez — he was the prince and doing a pretty good job with all the imperious aristocrat stuff.

When it comes to eroticism, Poe’s single use of the words ‘wanton’ and ‘barbaric’ is about as explicit as he can get, given the period’s constraints. But all the wanton decor and barbaric costumes he loves to hint at certainly suggest erotic frustration and kink: “There was much of the beautiful, much of the wanton, much of the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little of that which might have excited disgust.”

In short, Poe tends to tell us, not show us, so directors in the past have tended to overload on the showing us. But here, the overall effect of the costuming, the movements and the video imagery was actually to chill out Poe’s heavy-breathing prose. Revealing choice: Give most production designers Poe’s setting (and title) with all of the chromatic references, and they’d drench the abbey with color — like some psychedelic seraglio. Not here. The lighting changed hues and the video images certainly had their splashes of color but the costumes were vanilla and several video sequences were more or less white. This ‘Red Death’ was actually rather sparing with the color palette. Which only served to make  the Majestic’s red velvet seats stand out. They looked like the theater was awash with blood.


Composer Jordan Kuspa reading Poe’s ‘The Conqueror Worm’ before the performance of ‘Masque of the Red Death.’

Wait. All this doesn’t sound like a horror story. 

JWNot so far, no. But it turns out a static-y short story is a terrific source for what amounts to a ballet or, really, a Robert Wilson-ish performance work. A short story gives you plenty of room to stretch out. You’re not so worried about maintaining forward motion for the narrative. Poe’s tale — for all its suggested frenzy — proceeds more like a pageant, a series of tableaux. We have all the blue deaths and then we go and visit all the yellow deaths and so on. Think of the Sugar Plum Fairies but with a lot more collapsing.

What’s more, adapting ‘Masque’ with dance is actually rather fitting in a historic sense: A ‘masque’ isn’t a fancy French term for ‘mask.’ The ‘masque’ was a genre of theatrical party entertainment in late Renaissance courts. It involved music and drama and stage effects (even whole architectural structures). But what it generally ended with was a dance for the whole court, including the king and queen. It was designed as a graceful demonstration of political harmony and power.

It’s not clear Poe even knew what a ‘masque’ was. Nothing he describes in the prince’s decadent revels really resembles such a formal party. Poe seems to see the word as a shortened form of ‘masquerade,’ the term he uses several times for the prince’s end-of-the-world-fest, which is described in a typical flourish of glorious but decidedly vague terms: “There were much glare and glitter and piquancy and phantasm … There were arabesque figures with unsuited limbs and appointments. There were delirious fancies such as the madman fashions.”

I’m willing to bet, in fact, that Poe knew the term ‘masque’ almost entirely from Shakespeare. One of the few plays in which Shakespeare includes a masque is ‘The Tempest.’  And the main character in ‘The Tempest’ is, of course, Prospero — the same name as Poe’s prince.

But again, back to the gothic. What really conveyed a foreboding atmosphere in this ‘Masque’ was, one, Kuspa’s music. It was very rich, dark and theatrical – even a little too much like movie music. Poe describes Prospero’s abbey having a big, ebony clock, ticking off the hours, so Kuspa included hammered chimes solemnly marking the time. His music’s rhythms churned away in the strings and brass, but the chimes would suddenly bring everything to a halt. We moved from the grim and frantic to the hushed, sepulchral air of the ‘Dies Irae.’ It’s a dramatic gesture borrowed from things like Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, but you can’t say it still isn’t attention-getting.

And the other feature that added so much to the proceedings was the background video by Jeff Gibbons and Gregory Ruppe. They employed a wide variety of images and scenery — the seaside, underwater shots, people trapped and squeezed into a box — but most effectively, they filmed the Majestic itself. They made the handsome old theater into the prince’s abbey. Ss we in the audience were all trapped inside this gothic nightmare with him.

And with Death.

That’s smart.

JWA very simple but very smart idea. One thing the artists used were these slow tracking shots down the Majestic’s empty but ornate hallways and lobby and offices. It gave everything a sense of dread.

Masque 3
Like the hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s film ‘The Shining’?

JWYes! Those long rolling shots down the hallways. Same thing here.

And then it all came thundering together at the end.  My only criticism? The video was often so compelling, I sometimes lost track of the stage performers. This split effect — between visuals and music and movement — reminded me specifically of Robert Wilson’s brilliant stage works. Wilson has argued that theater has been overwhelmingly text-based, text-dominant. He wants to counterbalance that bias, staking a claim that the visual is just as important as what is spoken. He’s known for giving his collaborators a very free hand with only a loose framework or general idea to guide them. Consequently, it’s as if the different parts of Wilson’s works run on independent tracks, occasionally intersecting with one another or sometimes, somehow, fusing together into something greater than the parts.

Which was pretty much what happened here, right at the very creepy end.

Well, what was the ending like? Prospero still died, right?

JWI don’t want to give away the finish. This was a one-night-only performance, but I hope Neo-Classic has the chance to do it again sometime. I was starting to feel the entire work had gone on too long, even the video had lost my interest, and then, wham, the the video, the music, the movement theater — it all made Death worth waiting for.