"Could a madman have been as wise as this?" demands the protagonist of Edgar Allan Poe's chilling story The Tell-Tale Heart. Fed up with his neighbor's "vulture eye," he assiduously murders him, only to be haunted by the ghostly beating of the dead man's heart. As the presumed lunatic, performer and composer Danny Ashkenasi is certainly wise, and he has adapted Poe's suspenseful yarn into a brief but intense "musicabre," a well-honed and deliciously creepy chamber piece. Accompanied by three cellists (Ella Toovy, Tara Chambers, and Maria Bella Jeffers), who surround him as they anchor the right, left, and back edges of the bare stage, Ashkenasi, wearing a silky red bathrobe, turns Poe's text into a sort of sadistic form of Masterpiece Theatre. With just a chair as set and prop, he paces and flails, only to return to a seated position, legs properly crossed. Smug in his repose, his genteel appearance makes his reported activities only more horrifying. He alternately speaks and sings the story, and his voice, which has moments of considerable power, is a bit raw around the edges, a sandpapery effect that further betrays his unease.
Contributing to the New York International Fringe Festival for the third year in a row, Ashkenasi has written a dense score for his three proficient instrumentalists, and the songs percolate with atonal arpeggios and screechy scales. In "True, Nervous," the opening song, he jumbles Poe's words to create a lyric pattern that pops with impending doom. The cellists feverishly pluck and saw at their instruments to match his emotional state, later creating the ominous pulse of the dead man's heart. The final searing notes evoke the sound of frantic scribbling, the scrambling of a doomed man trying to escape from a trap.
The protagonist claims his perceived madness is only an "overacuteness of the senses," and Ashkenasi's adaptation—along with David L. Carson's sharp direction—keenly illustrates the heightened sensory state of a man on the edge. Wise or mad (and maybe both), The Tell-Tale Heart is a spooky glimpse into a darkly tinted world.