KERFOL, adapted by Dennis Krausnik from the story by Edith Wharton; directed by Michael Hammond. Performed with The Pit and The Pendulum by Edgar Allan Poe; directed by Tina Packer.
"..and don’t forget the tombs in the chapel."
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
For eight performances only Shakespeare & Company is presenting staged adaptations of two classic tales of horror and suspense, both written by masters of the form: Edgar Allan Poe and Edith Wharton. Poe’s short story, The Pit and The Pendulum is presented as a solo staged reading with a rotating cast of readers. From a single ornate chair a man relives the experience of torture and torment at the hands of the Inquisition in a unique room in Toledo, Spain. In the darkness he hears and feels and smells the decay of a religious system of government that brooks no interference by dissidents or political insurgents. He feels the anguish that only total darkness can convey. He lives through the horrors of rats, sharp blades descending over him, walls that threaten to crush him and a chasm beneath his feet that waits to engulf him.
All of this read aloud by one actor as lights and sounds sway our senses. Josh Liebert, the sound designer is as much the star of this twenty-eight minute curtain-raiser as the reader. He brings to our ears and our imaginations all that Poe has indicated in his text. We sit in our own world of darkness, out there in the audience at the Founders Theater, hearing the description and tormented voice of Poe’s narrator, accompanied by the music of recognizable noises. We are surrounded, as the man is surrounded, by the environment of the time and place and we feel as he feels. It is extremely well done by this company.
I attended the first public performance, on Thursday night, October 19. Josh McCabe, so memorable as the Host of the Garter in this summer’s production of The Merry Wives of Windsor delivered Poe’s prose. He was excellent and will repeat his performance of the work again on Thursday, October 26. His narrator is sure of himself, secure in his foreknowledge of the outcome of his experience, yet through the retelling of the tale we can feel his mood swings, hear his confusion and admit to loving his optimism under the worst of conditions. He does the tale proud.
Others to play this role over the run of the show are Michael F. Toomey (Oct. 20 & 27), Michael Hammond (Oct. 21) Jonathon Croy (Oct. 28) and Kevin G. Coleman (Oct. 22 & 29).
Kerfol has a cast of five people playing seven roles. Kerfol is the name of an ancient house in Brittany, a place for sale as the opening scene tells us. Two attractive and well-to-do locals, Henri and Annie Lanrivain, try to entice an American writer of their acquaintance, Lydia, to buy the old house. She is skeptical, but goes to see the place, finds herself trapped inside by a pack of wild dogs and a sudden storm and while there witnesses, and participates in, the trial of Anne de Cornault, a 17th century woman accused of murdering her husband.
Once again we are in the hands of the Inquisition as a deliberately defeatist chaplain and a furious inquisitor prosecute Anne, refusing to relent as she tells them her story. Krausnik’s adaptation is faithful to the internal tale Wharton has woven from these fragments, but his framing story is quite different from the source material. Much of the dialogue remains, but the circumstances, and certainly the ultimate ending of the piece, alters Wharton’s original. It’s almost too bad that, having made the choices he made, he leaves us hanging in mid-air rather than bringing us to some higher shock level at the final blackout. There are so many ways to have gone, but no secure route has been chosen.
That one flaw aside, the play works beautifully. The performances, the direction, the wonderfully moody set by Carl Sprague and the equally effective lighting by Nathan Towne-Smith, the perfect costumes by Govane Lohbauer all help to create the two time periods indicated in the script. Again, Josh Liebert’s wonderful sound design heightens the sense of danger and fear that pervades the writing.
Rachel Siegel is Lydia, the writer lost in the house, Kerfol, for the duration of the storm. She brings a peculiar sensibility to the role, based perhaps on other images of Wharton, Lillian Hellman, Agatha Christie and other writers of the early twentieth century. It’s hard to tell, but her realization of the role of Lydia is so well done that it hardly matters. We feel her skepticism, her honesty and her own levels of fright. She does it so very well.
Julie Webster plays Anne and Annie. The roles are different and so are her characterizations. This is another actress with a bright future. As she relates, finally, the circumstances of the night of the murder, her eyes, her mouth, her shoulders and her knees seem to grow ever closer to one another and this remarkable transformation is key to understanding the earlier incidents which impel Lydia into the house. It’s a wonderful physical performance.
Jeffrey Kent is the Inquisitor. Over the top a bit? Yes, but why not. Here is a ghostly presence whose reality is strength and conviction and an implacable nature. He pushes the envelope a bit and brings everyone under his spell. Even his voice, dark and slightly raspy, spells the importance of his belief in Anne’s guilt. There is no escaping this man, it seems. No way at all.
David Joseph plays the two Henri. In "modern" dress he has a sophistication that works well for the character. In his 16th century garb, he takes on the difficulty of suppressing his more conventionally viewed mannerisms and speech. He pulls it off, but this role is the smallest of the trial scene parts and that’s probably a good thing. Playing the role should repair the modernisms that squeak into his work - this was the first performance, after all - and if he can match even a tenth of his wonderful work this summer in the Goldoni play in the Rose Footprint he should be the match for his compatriots on stage this October.
George Bergen plays the Chaplain. If you have never seen Bergen on stage, this is a golden opportunity. He literally catches on fire as he, all brimstone and piety, condemns nearly everyone with whom he comes into contact. As he gives his own testimony, condemning Anne, he is like a high-pitched gust of wind taking down the limbs of trees. Certainly if there is life in the ghosts of Kerfol, Bergen is instilling it in them.
Michael Hammond has done an excellent job putting this play onto the stage. Sights and sounds distract the eye at just the right moments. The first scene, played in the house-left aisle, could have been a bit more forward for the ease of the audience, but other than that his choices all seem right.
This annual event at Shakes&CO, the October, Halloween plays, are something to catch this year. The work is terrific and its nice to have a Wharton ghost story to thrill to once again. The run is limited, so get your tickets now.
◊ 10-20-06 ◊
Rachel Siegel and Julie Webster; photo: Kevin Sprague
Jeffrey Kent and Rachel Siegel; photo: Kevin Sprague
George Bergen; Photo: Kevin Sprague
Performances of Kerfol are Thursdays through Sundays in the Founders' Theater at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts. Tickets range from $10 - $54. Most performances begin at 7:00 and the show runs one and a one half hours. For times and reservations call 413-637-3353 or go to their website at www.shakespeare.org.