A bell sounds. "I'm a survivor!" booms actor Matthew Kerrigan, eyes glinting. "Tonight, my lords and ladies, is for entertainment!"
Welcome to Masque of the Red Death, the latest theatrical marvel from Shaking the Tree. The show, based on the writing of Edgar Allan Poe, confirms director Samantha Van Der Merwe as one of the most creative minds in Portland theater, able to take tricky material and forge work that's immersive, captivating and alive. She deploys spectacle, but not at the expense of depth. Her work is smart, but doesn't bathe in self-satisfaction. She thrives with limited resources—Masque was supposed to take place in the company's recently acquired warehouse, but when that space wasn't ready, she made do with this low-slung studio. And she keeps audiences on their toes, whether we're two-stepping across the room or being herded across the street with glowing neon swords to Enso Urban Winery (best intermission ever).
Masque is something of an anthology play, braiding together stories (and one poem) by Poe. Horror anthology films are old hat, but this show freshens the format for the stage. Though perhaps less smoothly woven than last fall's Wilde Tales, an adaptation of fanciful stories by Oscar Wilde, it's decidedly more adult—a very good thing, as Van Der Merwe excels with playful but sinister material. The connective tissue here is the titular story, about a prince named Prospero (Kerrigan) who invites a thousand nobles to his abbey to elude a plague, played by Beth Thompson in a red dress. In Poe's original "Masque," the guests are met with rooms of different colors, each containing a unique oddity. Here, that conceit translates to a series of highly atmospheric mini-plays, all adapted by members of local collective Playwrights West, that range from morbid to darkly comedic.
In one of the first pieces, Andrew Wardenaar's adaptation of "The Pit and the Pendulum"—about a prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition—we occasionally see actor Joseph Gibson in a cone of light. Often, though, we're plunged into total darkness. Deprived of sight, all we can do is listen to Gibson's whispery rasp as he describes, in choppy fragments, what's around him: rats, rotting meat, ropes, a swinging blade. It's spooky and disorienting in its restraint.
Which makes the next scene, Steve Patterson's take on "The Fall of the House of Usher," all the more striking in its sensory overload. We're brought into a small room cast in a sickly green light, where a raving Andy Lee-Hillstrom swigs laudanum and Nicole Accuardi has cataleptic fits on a chaise lounge, inches away from us. Other performers, standing against the walls with the audience, sing in otherworldly, almost sacred tones. Thunder booms.
Not all the vignettes embrace such darkness, which can lead to tonal shifts that are occasionally jarring, but more often lend the production a welcome jauntiness. Poe, after all, wasn't just consumed by death, decay and disease. He didn't eschew humor, as in "The Spectacles"—adapted by Karin Magaldi—about a vain young man who refuses to wear glasses and thus winds up courting a toothless hag. Van Der Merwe turns up the volume on Poe's humor: Characters lope to the opera to the tune of Madonna's "Vogue," and two society ladies cheekily pantomime tequila shots.
The downside to the show's format is that what's intended as a through line—Prince Prospero's party—becomes more of a sideline. Kerrigan, a Shaking the Tree mainstay, is one of the city's most nimble and magnetic performers, and it's a shame he doesn't have more stage time. I could have watched an evening-length version of "That Smell," Ellen Margolis' meta riff on Poe's life and legacy. Clad in a tattered velvet coat, his eyes made up to look sunken, Kerrigan plays the ghost of Poe. His monologue—antic, funny, incisive—draws some of its timing from standup, just with the expertly deployed double takes and winking knowingness of the theater. As he exits, he calls out: "Don't let me spoil the party!"
SEE IT: Masque of the Red Death is at Shaking the Tree Theatre, 1407 SE Stark St., 235-0635. 7:30 pm Thursdays-Saturdays and 5 pm Sundays through Nov. 22. $20-$25; $5 for ages 19 and under.