'Madmen & Prisoners': First Folio keeps the faith with virtual double bill of Poe tales
In the face of an ongoing pandemic that has hammered arts organizations, First Folio Theatre's David Rice remains determinedly optimistic that live theater will rebound, although the landscape may be altered.
"If Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans couldn't kill theater and the arts during the interregnum," said Rice referring to the suspension of England's monarchy between 1649 and 1660, "a year and a half (pandemic) isn't going to kill the arts."
Like other resident companies and storefront ensembles, First Folio has reached out to fans and subscribers online.
Its latest contribution to virtual theater are two provocative excerpts from the 2018 revival of its signature show, "The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe: A Love Story," a combination bio-drama and literary survey adapted by Rice from Poe's stories and poems and staged in various rooms at the Mayslake Peabody Estate in Oak Brook.
The most successful show in the company's history, its popularity as well as the seasonal appeal of Poe's macabre stories inspired Rice to pair two "Madness" scenes -- "The Pit and the Pendulum" and "The Tell-Tale Heart" -- and stream them as a double bill titled "Madmen & Prisoners: Two Tales by Poe."
Fortunately, First Folio had several archived performances from which to choose. Because those scenes unfold on the estate's second floor, each time the theater mounts the show ensemble members videotape the scenes to accommodate audience members unable to climb stairs, Rice said.
The most difficult decision was deciding which performances to showcase. Rice settled on director Skyler Schrempp's 2018 production, the show's most recent revival, which includes Mbali Guliwe's spine-chilling turn as the unnamed prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition confronting death in "The Pit and the Pendulum" and Sam Pearson's suavely psychopathic murderer driven mad by the beating of "The Tell-Tale Heart."
The benefits are twofold. The actors, directors and designers get paid for "the additional usage of their talents" outside of their original contract, and virtual performances help keep First Folio subscribers entertained and engaged, Rice said.
With palpable pride and a sense of bittersweetness, he describes the double bill as "a teaser of what you can experience at First Folio when we return."
Rice -- who founded First Folio in 1997 with his late wife, director Alison C. Vesely -- fears more theater company casualties as the pandemic wears on. But he is determined that First Folio will not be among them.
To that end, he and his associates are doing their best to provide a semblance of live theater. Last spring, First Folio streamed its 2013 Joseph Jefferson Award-winning production of "Cymbeline: A Folk Tale With Music," adapted from Shakespeare's play by Rice and composer/lyricist Michael Keefe. Associate artistic director Melanie Keller regularly posts interviews with First Folio artistic associates on YouTube.
After 40 years in professional theater, Rice said he has heard theater's death knell sounded several times, yet it has not succumbed.
"There is no question that the arts will be back," he said.
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"Madmen & Prisoners: Two Tales by Poe"
What: "The Pit and the Pendulum" and "The Tell-Tale Heart" from First Folio Theatre's 2018 production of "The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe: A Love Story"
When: Streaming online from Oct. 20 through Nov. 1 at firstfolio.org
Tickets: Pay-what-you-can; regular season tickets range from $20 to $49; (630) 986-8067