Poe the Ballet is An Eerie Evening Set in the Depths of the Depot
One of the “stars” of the Minnesota Ballet’s Poe the Ballet is the venue itself, their new Studio Four. In the Ballet’s intimate Depot performance space, formerly used by the Playhouse’s Underground Theater, the audience could feel the dancers’ energy and intensity more intimately than in the Company’s usual large venue at the DECC.
Reading facial expressions, seeing up close the connections between company members, and even hearing the sounds of their feet and toe shoes on the floor made this experience different and exciting. The physical makeup of the brick walls, shadowy exits, and nooks and crannies of the space also helped create the mood of apprehension and dread.
Poe the Ballet uses macabre and chilling Edgar Allan Poe stories as its source material and is choreographed by Minnesota Ballet’s Artistic Director Karl von Rabenau. He describes his adaptation as both a “literal” and, at times, “creative” interpretation. Effectively using dance, movement, and the talents of his Company, von Rabenau created an evening of sinister storytelling.
In the opening piece, “The Masque of the Red Death,” a mysterious and fatal disease has been sweeping across the kingdom of Prince Prospero. Locking the gates of his palace, with a few select guests inside, they party, dance, eat, and ignore the chaos and tragedy outside, feeling safe and smug that the “red death” cannot enter.
When a beautiful and mysterious stranger dressed in bright red suddenly appears in their midst, one by one they are stricken and fall to their deaths. Kyra Olson, stunning in the persona of Death, dances elegantly en pointe as she “kills” with a slight gesture of her outstretched hand. Olson shows a coquettishness and charm at first and then her character’s unmoved and uncaring demeanor comes through as she goes about her appalling appointed task.
Billed as “The Purloined Letter and More,” the second piece combines Poe’s famous detective story, his epic poem “The Raven,” and his chilling tale of murder and madness, “The Telltale Heart.”
The tragic story tells of a queen who has an affair with a priest, raising the ire and jealousy of a politician. He steals the letter the priest had written to the Queen, using it to blackmail her.
Ximena Azurmendi, resplendent in her sparkling jewels and gorgeous costume, is exquisite with her every movement, dance, and expression in showing the Queen’s joy of her hidden desire for the priest, her hatred for the smarmy politician, and her terror as his intentions and actions become more and more abusive.
Playing the male roles in this ill-fated triangle are Sean M. Sullivan as the Priest and Isaac Sharratt as the politician. Sullivan is convincing as his combination of infatuation with the queen conflicts with his obligations as a Priest.
Sharratt brings one of the strongest performances of the night, as he progressively descends into a dark world of madness and evil. His frustration and unrequited love lead to a tragic end. Sharratt’s unnerving looks, mixed with his character’s inherent ostentatiousness, and his villainous cape-swirling dance and movements, are mesmerizing.
The inclusion of “The Raven,” however, with a taped reading of the poem, work less well, when combined with the detective story. The “dark and dreary” piece works for tone-setting for the first few stanzas, but then seems less logical. Just combining “Letter” with “The Telltale Heart,” to show the internal turmoils of a guilty and ultimately murderous soul would have been a more cohesive fit.
When a detective and two police officers enter the scene and chat with the Politician, a few moments of comic relief, before gruesome discovery, come in the form of a drunken dance from the Investigator, played by Brooke Bero, and two police officers, performed by Jessica Lopes and Victor Smith.
The triumph of the evening was undeniably the final piece, “The Pit and the Pendulum,” where costumes, set pieces, lighting, staging, acting, movement, and dance combine for this breathtaking pinnacle of terror.
It is the time of the Inquisition when poor souls, most innocent, are imprisoned, tortured, and often put to death. Opening with a ghastly white-masked group of Judges sitting at a lit table, where they are ready to pronounce sentence on The Accused (Matthew Frezzell),
The Judge’s movements, with at first just using their hands, arms, and upper bodies, are completely unnerving and set the tone for the unspeakable horrors yet to come. When they later move as a black-robed, intimidating hoard, they are even more dehumanizing and threatening.
Comic relief here comes in the form of three rats who befriend The Accused, share his scraps of food, and untie him from the torture table. Victor Smith, Brianna Crockett, and Taylor Phillips are funny and ultimately tragic as well.
Frezzell’s performance alone is worth the price of admission. With his incredibly expressive face and his aspects of desperation and unspeakable fear, he portrays in excruciating detail, what it would be like in his place, alone in the dark, starving, wishing for death and fearing it at the same time.
And Death does appear. Kyra Olson, again in her startling red costume, playing the role in this story as well. Reminiscent of the character of the Angel of Death, in the musical The Kiss of the Spider Woman, Olson is seductive and seemingly sympathetic at first. She and Frezzell perform a beautiful and prophetic pas de deux before she ties him again to the table to await his end, the sharp-bladed pendulum set to swing down to slice him in half.
It ends, however, a bit anti-climactically, without any sign of a pendulum. A representative dancer’s body, held aloft with a swinging and menacing arm would have been a spine-chilling last picture.
For Minnesota Ballet’s longtime season ticket holders or for those experiencing what the Minnesota Ballet has to offer for the first time, this Halloween season production offers both its “tricks” and its “treats.”
*Note: Some roles are doubled and will be played by different dancers on alternate nights. This review is based on the October 20 opening night performance. Performances continue October 21-22 and October 26-29.
The Nutcracker: A Duluth Tale, a favorite holiday tradition, is up next for the Minnesota Ballet, back onstage at the DECC in Symphony Hall, December 8-10. For more information, visit minnesotaballet.org
About Sheryl Jensen - Arts & Entertainment Editor
A retired educator with the Duluth Public Schools, Sheryl Jensen has been a theater director of over 60 school and community productions. Her production of William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew at East High School won the National High School Theater award from the BRAVO television network.
Having written theater, music, dance, and opera reviews for the Duluth News Tribune for many years, she now is the Arts & Entertainment Editor for Destination Duluth.