Not entirely successful, The Masque of the Red Death stands unsure between presentation and representation, self-awareness and not, always doing things a tad bit too literally. Its starting and ending point is Edgar Allan Poe's short story of one continuous party, closed off from the society ravaged by plague. This is a powerful trope, used since Boccaccio, at the bottom of it our unease about antisocial activities of all kinds, a desire to punish the autonomous outcasts, the death wish behind certain forms of transgressive hedonism; and then the tantalising image of total social breakdown. It is so simple, so resonant, that anything could have been made out of it. Instead, this production doesn't move further than square two. The program notes give it all away: “Daniel Schlusser […] told me about a task he had once set a group of actors: create the last piece of theatre allowed by a government before theatre is entirely banned in the land.” From here to pre-plague hedonism, and from Poe to the free-rolling funfair of a performance, are two very small steps.
The other problem is that Masque swings between describing the last party, and being the party, backing-and-forthing in its interaction with the audience in a way that ultimately isn't very thought-through. The dramatic structure is upheld by the narrative frame of the story, used to insert a range of Poe's writing, most of it in a purely declamatory fashion. The representational middle, a series of one- or two-person acts, draws on the vaudeville more than it tries to explore this imaginary aristocratic party, which in itself would not be a sin had the visual and spiritual clichés of vaudeville not been endlessly over-exploited on every kind of Melbourne stage already. Although the performer-spectator relationship is explored in all sorts of ways: performers sitting in the stalls, the audience sitting on stage, both dispersing into small groups and withdrawing into little rooms; it never feels like there is any higher purpose to these explorations of form than to try another trick. In the end, the two parts are collated quite safely, and our palates should be predictably satisfied: mindless amusement boxed into a safe experience, book-ended by some sense of purpose, explanation.
In certain moments, I had real hope that the performance was leading somewhere other than to the anticipated punishment of privileged antisociability. There appeared to be a slow build-up of acts, performed apparently for us, of greater and more intense transgression: from the bizarre, complexly disturbing image of a girl squatting on a skateboard, to the deliciously trash version of Raven as smut, to the full frontal nudity of a cross-dressing madame Butterfly. And yet, despite these upswings of visual creativity, most of the imagery was intellectually shallow, not doing much more than presenting commonplaces: violence on semi-naked women, glittery cross-dressing, unneeded accents. It was also visually misconceived: with gypsy fortune tellers, clowns and dancers, it was more of a romanticized village fair than the last supper of the medieval condemned. Which, again, would not be a sin had it not been the thousandth time this decade that a faux-Slavic accent was donned by a gypsy fortune teller on Melbourne stage.
The performances are passionate across the board, with each performer given a moment of one-act glory, and this ultimately makes The Masque of the Red Death a rather enjoyable experience. Much more enjoyable to witness, I may add, than think about later. However, perhaps due to the looseness of the direction, one never forgets that one is watching a student production, in serious discrepancy with last year's VCA shows, one of which, YES, could later easily get re-staged at fortyfivedownstairs.
I like tropes, I like clichés, I like common places. I believe in the power of fairy tales, of myths, of rituals. There is intrigue in the commonality of the simple ideas that order human existence across time and space. I would like to see them explored in ways more intelligent that simple declamation of poetry masquerading as provocation.
The Masque of the Red Death. Based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe. Directed by John Bolton. Music: Jo Laing. Set design: Jeminah Reidy. Costumes: Jane Noonan. Lighting design: Kimberly Kwa. Sound design: Timothy Bright. Victorian College of the Arts Company 2008 Graduating Performance. Space 28, Dodds St, Southbank, 29 Oct – 7 Nov.