Fringe is a melting pot for people of all backgrounds. At the moment I’m getting to know a less common pairing: a classical poet and an actor skilled in long-form recitation.
Magus Magnus and Stephen Mead may both be locals — from Alexandria and College Park, respectively — but their show Murder on the Bare Stage takes its audiences all around the world, and back to bygone times when the art of dramatic recitation — simple yet difficult to do well — was the primary mode of storytelling.
“The public readings Charles Dickens did of his own work were very popular,” says Mead, citing one selection from the show’s varied set of authors. “But Dickens’ works were written with the knowledge that some of his audience was illiterate — they had to have someone read it out loud to him. So he made absolutely certain that his works would sound good aloud.”
The element of the bare stage, then, makes good sense.
“It’s about imagination,” Mangus explains. “If you paint a moon onto the back wall of the stage, people will notice it and then after a moment they’ll stop thinking about it. But when an actor says the word ‘moon,’ the audience is asked to conjure it up. That’s something only live theatre can do. And I focus on this very stripped-down, low-tech kind of theatre because it heightens that experience. When the imagination is really engaged, shows can become really visceral.”
Mead concurs. “Magus and I share this fascination with the bare stage. You can create a sense of light, sets, props, and costumes all through the words themselves. When the actor visualizes it and shares it, the audience isn’t just watching a show. They’re actively engaging in the creative process.”
Murder on the Bare Stage features Dickens’s “Oliver Twist,” but also Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “Gentle Alice Brown,” by W. S. Gilbert, Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” and other pieces pulled from Mead’s extensive memorized library of stories, plus a hearty dose of Magnus’s own poetry.
The show is easily customizable as well. Magnus and Mead presented a two-hour version of the show last fall at Bloombars in Columbia Heights, to great success. This production is half that length, but gets at the same main theme.
“There’s definitely a dramatic arc,” says Magnus. “The underlying theme is the psychology of violent crime, and how crimes are concealed. These stories tell not just of crimes, but of the inability to get away from your crimes. And when we get into the Dickens and the Poe we get this incredible amount of suspense that builds to a climax.”
This theme holds together across different authors?
“Absolutely. People will find some of the same ideas coming up in different texts from different writers. That becomes poetic to me.”
Murder on a Bare Stage
by Stephen Mead and Magus Magnus
at Caos on F
923 F Street NW
Washington, DC, 20004
Details and tickets
Magnus comes from the poetry world first and foremost. As a poet his main focus these days is on the ancient Greek form of the idyll, created by Theocrates. As in the time of Dickens, poetry and storytelling was performance, and the idylls are written as such.
“I’ve been trying for a while to find the right way to perform them. I started working with actors on my writing, trying to improve my poems for a listening audience. So Stephen and I have been honing that. And our answer is to create a theatre of the imagination, which has its roots in the idyll form. To really enhancing imagination, and embracing the power of words with actors.”
Magnus has showcased this kind of work at the Athenaeum in Alexandria, among other places. There he met Mead, and Murder on the Bare Stage started to take shape: several of Magnus’s idylls presented alongside selections from Mead’s extensive mental repertoire.
It’s a diverse collection, but it all ties together. And not just academically. “We chose these pieces not only because they’re suited to being spoken aloud, but also because those writers bring a very high level of entertainment to their writing,” says Mead. “It’s important to me that we’re entertaining as well.”