Pithy production of Poe tale at La Mama

Some of the most inventive theater I've seen has been produced on low budgets in modest surroundings. A lack of fancy trappings can spur new solutions to problems of stagecraft. And sometimes a modest framework can enhance a production in itself, by cutting distractions and focusing all attention on key elements. Such is the case with ``Berenice,'' the Creation Company's pithy adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's short story, directed by Matthew Maguire and recently staged at La Mama.

``Berenice'' features six characters played by four performers, plus a small music combo comprising a flute, a bass, and a small battery of electronic instruments played by composer Vito Ricci.

Just as important to the show's effect is its placement in one of the La Mama complex's smaller theaters -- which isn't decked out in scenic disguises, for once, but made to look as dungeonlike as possible. And that is very dungeonlike.

Such a cordially dank atmosphere is just right for the Poe-tic spirit that oozes from ``Berenice,'' glaring and grimacing and rattling its chains in an earnest but vain attempt to shiver our timbers.

Catching the mood, the performers act up a storm of ripely romantic gestures and poses -- accompanied by a recitation of Poe's purple prose, intoned with gaunt solemnity by director Maguire, attired for the occasion in a modish straitjacket.

I've always had a sneaking affection for the tangled-up inspiration, audacity, excessiveness, and just plain goofiness of Baltimore's most famous author, and I enjoyed the echoes of all those qualities in this theatrical spinoff -- which wouldn't have felt nearly so Poe-like, I suspect, in more luxurious surroundings. (Look out for the pit on your way in, and dodge that pendulum!)

I can't help wondering, though, why the talented Creation Company has chosen such a lightweight yarn to lavish its attention on. ``Berenice'' is chock-full of Poe's most overcooked mannerisms, and it's hard to work up much empathy for the protagonist, a loony chatterbox whose main action is to go crazy and extract his wife's teeth.

This troupe is capable of much more substantive stuff -- and happily, it has plans for more ambitious projects in the near future, including a multimedia work based on a Marcel Duchamp painting and a new production of an original Maguire play.

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