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You'd have to be mad to miss the County Seat's latest contest show

"Place: The minds of madmen everywhere," the program reads. "They're wrong. They say I've gone mad," says the dark-haired man standing in the spotlight. "But they don't know what madness is." By the end of the County Seat Theater's "Nightfall wit...

"Place: The minds of madmen everywhere," the program reads.

"They're wrong. They say I've gone mad," says the dark-haired man standing in the spotlight. "But they don't know what madness is."

By the end of the County Seat Theater's "Nightfall with Edgar Allen Poe" - this year's community theater competition piece - the audience will at least taste madness, courtesy of writer Edgar Allen Poe and playwright Eric Cobel.

Unlike the theater's last competition piece, "Wiley and the Hairy Man," "Nightfall" is no light-hearted frolic in the back woods of the American South. Rather, it's more of a hold-your-breath, sit-on-the-edge-of-your-seat journey through the human psyche.

Poe was, after all, the father of modern horror and mystery writing.

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"You should be ready for intense entertainment," warned Director Cheryl Kramer-Milder before a final dress rehearsal began Friday evening.

Then the theater went dark and a bell started to toll.

Poe, played by Michael Rosen, is the first character on the stage. He never leaves. In Coble's adaptation, Poe becomes a character in each story: "The Raven," "The Pit and the Pendulum" and "The Tell-Tale Heart."

Poe wrote "The Raven" during the agonizing illness and eventual death of his beloved wife, Virginia, from tuberculosis.

The actors in "Nightfall" bring "The Raven" to life in a way that makes the watcher forget it is a poem.

Poe is joined on the stage by three shadow voices, played by Ruthie Zissos, Jodie Jurek and Keith Chapin, who flit in and out of his mind and the view of the audience with remarkable fluidity, taking verbal turns with Poe and each other. Sometimes they speak entire lines; other times they utter single words of a sentence one after another as though they really were all inside one man's head.

Music by Wrenshall's Tom Cawcutt Sr. - who recently retired from Sappi - winds through all three of Poe's stories.

Kramer-Milder asked the well-known local musician if he could write some original music for the show. Cawcutt composed a score for the entire hour-long show ... and signed up to be part of the show.

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"The problem with recording music for a show like this is that if one thing is out of sync, then it throws the whole thing off," said Cawcutt, who memorized the score (because it's too dark to read onstage anyway). "I can hold a note longer or cut it off earlier, whatever needs to happen."

As the Macabre Musician, Cawcutt sits in shadow, his head covered by a large hood. He doesn't utter a single word. His music, however, speaks for itself.

"I read through the script and just kind of watched to get the juices flowing," Cawcutt said, citing a scene from "The Tell-Tale Heart" as an example. "When the old man hears the shutter on the lantern and sits up in bed, listening, completely still, but frightened - you want the music to grab you and stop at the same time."

Cawcutt said he has really enjoyed being part of the show.

"I love this," he said. "The cast and crew are phenomenal. The sound and lights are right on cue. And Kramer-Milder's imagination, her directing, she thinks about everything, even the little things, and that makes all the difference."

Little things like the tapping of the rats' claws or the metallic shine of the pendulum as it whispers overhead.

Kramer-Milder said the group will head to competition March 14-17 in Brooklyn Park, Minn., after this weekend's four-day run.

"I'm sure we will show well," she said.

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Indeed. Even for those who didn't enjoy Poe when forced to read him in high school - including Cawcutt - may change their minds after watching "Nightfall."

Related Topics: CARLTON COUNTYCLOQUET
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