I don't really like scary stories. Poe is included in this Halloween mix of two virtual plays and two radio broadcasts because it seemed remiss to exclude him, but my preference is for the sci-fi.
The New Colony's timely “Other Rockpools” was scheduled to have its world premiere at The Den Theatre this past summer, but the pandemic derailed that plan.
Happily, the sci-fi adventure by co-artistic director Fin Coe adapts reasonably well to the Zoom format. That's because the acting by the original cast under Elyse Dolan's direction is very good, and the stage directions read by Kelsey McGrath keep the action flowing clearly and smoothly.
The story, which begins in the summer of 2001, is set in motion by the characters' disgust with the results of a recent Presidential election. A renowned physicist, Michelle (Shariba Rivers), invites three scientists — computer geek Grace (Emilie Modaff), serious Catherine (Taylor Raye), and effusive Jay (Allyce Torres) — to her remote cabin to build an experimental machine that will transport them to different timelines so they can find a better world. The arrival of Byron (Will Cavedo), the drug-dealing food delivery guy, fills out the play’s captivating interpersonal relationships.
Although the virtual version of the play seems a bit long, the whole thing is fun. One tip: Don't assume anything — not even that the starting point is our own timeline. There are clues.
“Other Rockpools,” The New Colony. Through Nov. 3. Free; suggested donation of $10 to Chicago Votes. youtube.com/user/newcolonychicago
Madmen & Prisoners: Two Tales by Poe
“Madmen & Prisoners: Two Tales by Poe” is a poignant reminder of how much is lost when we don't have live theater. Adapted for the stage by David Rice and directed by Skyler Schrempp, the sections of “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Pit and the Pendulum” were recorded live during a 2018 performance of the full show, which has become a company staple since it premiered in 2008.
The filming took place in different rooms of Maslake Hall, an historic — some say haunted — mansion on the grounds of the Peabody Estate in Oak Brook. Viewers are seated around a playing area in a cozy wood-paneled library for “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Poe himself (Christian Gray) provides a brief introduction, after which the Madman (Sam Pearson) enters and tells the audience his tale of obsession with the “vulture eye” of an old man and how he resolved to get rid of the terror. When the Policeman (Josh Bernaski) comes to investigate, the jig is up.
The audience is led to a different room and plunged into virtual darkness for “The Pit and the Pendulum,” set in a 15th-century Spanish prison where a terrified Prisoner (Mbali Guliwe) is torn between...well, you know...until the Monk (Joel Moses) arrives on the scene. The descriptions — especially of rats — are gruesome, and the parallels to modern incarceration, particularly in the Middle East, are inescapable.
The video barely suggests the spooky ambiance, and the sound quality is inconsistent, but it did whet my appetite to see the full production when live theater returns.
“Madmen & Prisoners: Two Tales by Poe,” First Folio Theatre. Through Nov. 1. Pay what you can. firstfolio.org
A War of the Worlds
As the name suggests, Theatre in the Dark is dedicated to staging shows under blackout conditions. So when the pandemic made that impossible, pivoting to a radio play for “A War of the Worlds” was a no brainer, especially given the notoriety of Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre on the Air's 1938 broadcast, which apparently sparked panic that a real Martian invasion was underway among those who tuned in late.
Company founders Corey Bradberry and Mack Gordon's new audio drama won't scare anybody, but it is an admirable technical accomplishment, considering it's being performed live online six times a week by actors who are in different cities. The narrative follows H.G. Wells' novel more-or-less closely, except that the action has been transported from 1890s England to 21st century Chicago and environs.
The main character is H.G. Wells (Gordon), a science journalist who is enjoying a happy life with his photographer wife Isabel (Elizabeth McCoy) until a meteor from the “Red Planet” crashes 70 miles outside the city at the start of a new decade. He writes about the chaos that ensues in a document found after the debacle, providing a framing device.
Local references abound as Wells and Isabel survive various misadventures trying to get back together. The invaders use their Heat-Ray and other weapons to destroy everything in their path until they are felled by....wait for it, germs and viruses to which they have no immunity.
Bradberry is the director/stage manager, and four actors total — the other two are Alex Morales and Ming Hudson — play all the roles. Sometimes it's hard to distinguish among the many characters, and some of them don't sound like real people. But kudos to the sound design and special effects.
“A War of the Worlds,” Theatre in the Dark. Through Nov. 21. Pay what you can; $20-$25 suggested. theatreinthedark.com
Twisted Tales of Poe
AstonRep Theatre Company's streaming radio broadcast “Twisted Tales of Poe” brings together the poem “The Raven” and three stories: “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Black Cat,” though they're not announced on the preview version of the audio tape. Instead, there is the frame that the killers are in prison awaiting execution, and they tell each other what brought them there.
Philip Grecian is responsible for the adept adaptation, and Aaron Mays directed the ensemble, which includes Jordan Arredondo, Meg Elliott, Christian Castro, Rian Jairell, Nevada Montgomery, Victor Salinas and Aja Wiltshire. Credit for the ample sound design and Foley artistry goes to Jeremiah Barr and Robert Tobin.
These tales are so macabre and gory that it would be hard for a live production to really do them justice. They're best left to radio—and our imaginations.
“Twisted Tales of Poe,” AstonRep Theatre Company. Through Oct. 31. Free. astonrep.com