The Tell-Tale Heart: A Musicabre
The tragedy is so thick you could pierce it with a hypodermic needle: A woman jilted by her worthless husband now finds her newly independent son preparing to marry a woman she feels is far beneath his class, so action must be taken. Is this some newly discovered Sophoclean epic? No, it's Robert Moulthrop's T.L.C., being presented at the Linhart Theater as part of this year's Fringe Festival. While one doesn't doubt that Moulthrop would love his Evelyn Coleman (played here by Margaret Daly) to be routinely mentioned with the likes of Clytemnestra, Medea, and Electra, that's likely not in the cards.
Though a middle-class nurse in a cardiac ward, Evelyn is the model of a contemporary woman: driven, independent, and loving. Perhaps too loving when it comes to her 28-year-old son Charlie: Her pondering his sexual escapades with his new love, Janey (whom, he's taken great pains to ensure, Mom has never met), sends her almost into debilitating hysterics; her attempts to uproot his union by badmouthing him to Janey's parents are the disquietingly calm actions of a woman with no conscience; and her incessant doting on her pet goldfish, her sucking down premade screwdrivers, and her drug cabinet of a kitchen suggest an addictive personality in need of everything except the void Charlie created.
No, this can't possibly turn out well, and Moulthrop doesn't miss a single, terrifying trick. He also doesn't do enough to clarify Evelyn's psychosis, so that her increasingly controlling behavior remains believable throughout. Much of the writing does little but juxtapose her "love" for Charlie against the least lovely doings imaginable; the repetitiveness of her actions, echoed in the imprisoned restlessness of Marc Silberschatz's staging, isn't alone enough for a consistently compelling play, however effectively it may circumscribe her mental defects.
Daly eerily evokes Evelyn's inherent childlike view of the world, with glazed-over eyes, vacant expressions, and an ethereal voice that perfectly place for us this woman with no grasp whatsoever on reality. The playwright, however, has no such leeway, and hasn't effectively crafted Evelyn's life and world in a way that will make them easily relatable to us. Better grounding her actions in some (any) form of common sense would allow us to more readily sympathize with a woman currently too monstrous to take seriously.
The Tell-Tale Heart: A Musicabre
If a cellist playing pizzicato isn't the ideal orchestral representation of a heartbeat, I don't know what is. Choosing that sound as the central, haunting theme of The Tell-Tale Heart: A Musicabre, is probably Danny Ashkenasi's greatest achievement with his Fringe Festival Edgar Allan Poe adaptation. As those fiercely plucked strings ring throughout the tiny Studio at the Cherry Lane, you feel just as Ashkenasi's narrator does when he imagines he hears an old man's heart beating feverishly during the last seconds of his life: crushingly guilty, yet also exhilarated, as if you, too, are about to commit a murder.
Very little else in this trim little piece (running scarcely 30 minutes) matches that moment of impending interior doom. Ashkenasi demonstrated his interpretive talent for this in Beyond at last year's Fringe Festival, which explored an opera singer's constantly churning mind in the last seconds of her life in similarly daring terms. But for The Tell-Tale Heart, his lyrics (taken almost entirely from Poe) tell almost all the story, leaving the tunes free to provide generically minor, dark, and discordant accompaniment. Those heartbeats are the only moments of even reasonable invention - most everything else sounds like take-out exercises from Poe Musicalization 101: never wrong, but never truly right.
Ashkenasi the actor is equally dichotomous: On the acting level, he often thrillingly evokes everyday lunacy, finding a creepy (yet intriguing) sexual satisfaction from the murder that most performers might miss; the drained, contented look on his face after smothering the old man is really something to see. Unfortunately, Ashkenasi's singing tends to be tortured, precisely pitched musically and emotionally but pushed in ways wrong for the character and worrisome for the audience (more than once, I found myself wondering whether he'd survive the show).
A more vocally accomplished performer in the lead role, more distinguishing music, and a better sense of the haughty glares from the disapproving public (which often infected Poe's writings) would make this Tell-Tale Heart make audiences' hearts beat faster. As it is, if Ashkenasi's work doesn't entirely succeed, it gets your blood pumping often enough to be worth the effort.
The Tell-Tale Heart - a musicabre