“The Tell-Tale Heart,” Warboy Theatre Projects, Provo Castle Theater, through Saturday, Nov. 3, at 7 p.m., $3-7, warboytheatreprojects.com
PROVO — Madness, mystery and the macabre were central elements to Edgar Allan Poe’s writings, and many consider his skills unsurpassed in creating suspense. In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” an unnamed narrator tries to prove his “sanity” while meticulously planning to kill a man with an imagined “vulture eye” and afterward hears his victim’s relentless heartbeat.
The famous Poe short story is a springboard to an original adaptation for the budding Warboy Theatre Projects company. This inaugural project eerily re-creates the spirit of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” using devised characters in a wholly new situation.
The Provo Castle Theater becomes the perfect location for this play. Theatergoers enter a small room with stark, concrete walls, and three bare light bulbs are suspended over simple cots. As an orderly who becomes our usher explains, we are in a mental health ward. But not to worry: The most violence-prone patients are in a secure facility.
Then the tale eerily unfolds. Although a patient, Heather (Melanie Thomason) is the self-appointed nursemaid to her fellow patients, John (Brian Grob) and Ray (Phil Varney). John uses small building blocks to create the shape of an eye, scatters the blocks and then repeats the design. The mute Ray is nervously huddled on his cot with a simple blanket wrapped around him. Their doctor (Jason Sullivan) periodically enters the ward as he struggles with their treatment. Then a throbbing heartbeat is heard, and the story continues to its chilling conclusion.
“The Tell-Tale Heart,” scripted by Grob and Elena Yazykova, challenges our perceptions of who is “insane” and is marked by splendid performances by its collegiate actors, under the direction of Jyllian Unice.
The founders of Warboy Theatre Projects are nearly all university students, and they plan to create stage experiences that envelop the audience as participants. In the intimate space of the Provo Castle Theater, that objective is largely successful, with Thomason in her role as the three patients’ spokeswoman explaining their plight and making direct pleas to the audience. Her performance is essential to the show, and Thomason skillfully shows bewilderment, fright, anger and also nurturing patience.
Grob and Varney as the patients have a smaller story to tell, but their abilities are evident. The two actors could be blankly staring at the audience, but they present fully formed characters. While it’s largely the fault of the thin script, Sullivan is not revealing as the doctor in charge.
It is necessary to point out that there is bloodshed in the play, but any violent acts take place offstage.
The unheated space of the theater adds to the atmosphere of the play, and on chilly evenings like the opening-night performance, the quilts available to patrons are welcome. It may be a device to continue the site-specific staging, but there are no programs available identifying the actors and creative team.