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“The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Masque of the Red Death”

By Bret McCabe | Posted 1/18/2006

By Edgar Allan Poe, adapted by Ramesh Meyyappan At the Creative Alliance at the Patterson

Ramesh Meyyappan performs the U.S. premiere of his This Side Up Jan. 19-22 at the New Studio Theatre at Towson University Center for the Arts.

It’s not every day you see a deaf performer mime chopping a body to bits. You know, an actor silently kneels next to the imaginary body he just strangled, grabs an imaginary cutting implement, and starts cartoonishly hacking away. Swing, swing, swing, chop, chop, chop, pick up something—lower leg, upper leg, other—and then, in a moment of deliciously macabre mirth, lop off some pliable, fleshy bit and play with it like a cat with a nearly dead mouse.

Singapore performer Ramesh Meyyappan is an adept and beguiling practitioner of what is known in the U.K. as physical and visual theater, a dramatic approach that incorporates dance, body performance, performance art, puppetry, and practically any other creative energy that liberates the stage from the written text and spoken word. It creates a more abstract performance space—in some ways a risky one that asks a good deal of its audience—but also capable of startlingly alive scenes.

Meyyappan’s two performances on this bill, part of the 14-day QuestFest currently ongoing in Baltimore, featured the actor in solo interpretations of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Masque of the Red Death.” The above gleeful hacking takes place midway through “Tell-Tale,” and marked the performance’s move from the tepid into something more illuminating. Meyyappan—clad in black pants and a white oxford shirt and performing on a stage void of any set decoration—played the dual role of a fussy, proper manservant and the stodgy, aged man who the servant cares for, kills, and buries beneath the floor. Familiarity with Poe’s story helped navigating Meyyappan’s role-switching early on, even though he did adopt distinctly different expressions for each and easily moved between the two: He hunches over and moves wearily as the old man is creakily helped out of bed and slyly stretches out an arm and extends the other around an imaginary load to become the servant walking him in one smooth motion. The setup is a slow going at first, but come the killing, hacking, and burying, Meyyappan’s performance has accrued an engaging momentum.

His treatment of “The Masque of the Red Death” is much more arresting: A man reads the newspaper, is troubled by some unknown outside threat, and immediately starts cutting himself off from the world. It’s performed in remarkably simple gestures—he rushes to his fours walls and scrawls keep out and keep away—and has troublingly vivid death nightmares while sleeping. It’s an adaptation that abstracts the allegorical short into a poignantly streamlined vision of paranoid isolation, yielding a wordless experience as creepily unnerving as Poe’s words.

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