‘Black Cat’ offers some horrifying scenes

By Tracey D’Astolfo

YOUNGSTOWN — Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat” is a brief tale, roughly the length of a magazine article.

It’s typical Poe in that it involves a man who descends into madness and murder, and becomes undone in macabre fashion. But it’s not among Poe’s most powerful works.

The story hints at the witchlike power of a cat. The demise of the man who crosses its path is hastened by alcohol abuse.

Local theater veteran J.E. Ballantyne Jr. has taken the framework of this short story and fleshed it out into a two-hour (with intermission) play. Ballantyne wrote the stage adaptation and also directs “The Black Cat,” which opened Friday before a full house at Victorian Players Theatre.

Ballantyne has adapted Poe stories before for the annual Halloween offerings at the Vic, including “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.” But “The Black Cat” is easily the sparsest tale he’s tackled. Consequently, he has had to create a lot of backstory, adding a major plot twist involving the sins of the father.

In Ballantyne’s version, the mystery of the cat is shifted into a broader curse brought on by animals that had been slaughtered. It’s a little bit farfetched, but the play’s meandering pace keeps the horror of Poe’s story intact. But it also leaves little room for the viewer’s imagination to fill in the blanks. That’s something Poe relied on.

In the Vic’s production, a young couple, Franklin and Marguerite, played by Tom Smith and Laura J. Phillips, move into an old house they’ve inherited.

It sits on the outskirts of a village in 1800s Maryland and is reviled by the townsfolk, who believe its previous owner committed a heinous crime against the village’s animals.

After they get settled in and fill their house with pets, Franklin’s jovialness soon changes to agitation.

The curses of the past speak to him. He turns to the bottle and is soon lashing out at his wife and Reginald, his servant, a grotesque man who keeps his face covered by a hood.

The plot follows quite a few twists and turns before arriving at the conclusion that Poe originally described. Along the way are a few horrifying scenes — some courtesy of Poe, some of Ballantyne and company.

You couldn’t ask for a better pair of leads than Smith and Phillips. Smith is superb as Franklin in all his phases. He starts as a hearty and well-to-do newlywed, then darkens into a madman. Under the influence of brandy, he bellows and rages as the play careens toward its shocking ending.

Phillips cuts a fine Victorian woman, who can only suffer as her husband becomes ever more touched and violent.

C Richard Haldi is Reginald, the dark and tortured man-servant. He also breaks into narrator mode as needed, sometimes right after speaking in his character, which can be confusing.

Sam Luptak is the morbid official who turns over the accursed house to Franklin while trying to warn him of its history. Caty Sacui provides comic relief in a brief role as a saucy barmaid.

“The Black Cat” will run through Halloween at the cozy Victorian. After that, it will go on the road in a unique arrangement that will see it travel to Columbiana’s Main Street Theater for three performances.

X“The Black Cat” will be presented at Victorian Players Theatre, 702 Mahoning Ave., Youngstown, at 2 p.m. today and Oct. 25 and Nov. 1; and at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Oct. 30 and 31; and at midnight Saturday and Oct. 31. Call (330) 746-5455. It also will be presented at Main Street Theater, 5 N. Main St., Columbiana, at 8 p.m. Nov. 6 and 7 and 2 p.m. Nov. 8. Call (330) 482-9647.

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