By David M. Rice
Based on the novel by Horace Walpole
Produced by First Folio Theatre
At Mayslake Peabody Estate
Gothic novel comes to life most in crisp production by First Folio Theatre
Based on the 18th Century Gothic horror novel by Horace Walpole and utilizing the large former chapel at Mayslake Peabody Estate, David Rice’s world premier adaptation basically works as “a cross between the eeriness of Poe and the romance of Jane Austen, with a dash of Errol Flynn swashbuckling thrown in,” states Rice.
Considered the first Gothic novel (1764), The Castle of Otranto that influenced Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Edgar Allen Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum, and Brian Stoker’s Dracula, as well as Jane Austin’s Northanger Abby. The Gothic novel is literature of nightmares using myth, folklore, fairy tale and romance. It conjures up macabre beings such as ghosts, mad minks, vampires and demons usually in dark castles or stormy seas. Dreams fuel the stories.
David Rice’s adaptation of The Castle of Otranto is an ambitious play filled with stock Gothic characters each verbalizing the story with apt descriptions of the curse and the ghosts. Rice has concisely honed the dense novel to a brisk, well-paced 2 hour drama filled with action, some eerie moments, and plausible plot twists. But what is lacking in this entertaining work are shockingly scary interludes. This tale of the supernatural comes across more of a Gothic morality tale than a horror tale.
Baron Manford of Otranto (David Girolmo in a commanding performance) is obsessed with having a male heir to fight off the Otranto curse. When his only son is killed, he desires Isabella to give him a son since his wife Hippolyta seem unable to bare more children. Isabella loathes Manfred and struggles to escape the castle. She gets help from a new servant, Theodore (the charismatically dashing Chris Amos). The monk, Father Jerome (Tony Dobrowolski), and the Mysterious Knight (Dev Kwnnedy) complicate Manfred’s plans. Manfred’s daughter Matilda (Hayley L. Rice) aids Theodore, who has garnered Manfred’s wrath. Both Isabellaa and Matilda have fallen in love with the debonair Theodore–who is more than merely a servant. The plot becomes complicated and the action includes two murders and a couple of sword fights. Hidden chambers, a bleeding mausoleum , falling statues, ghostly visitations, and vocal pronouncements fuel this complex play.
David Girolomo plays Manfred as a flawed villain with some humanity and some humor while Chris Amos plays Theodore as an Errol Flynn type romantic hero. The story unfolds effectively and the action is entertaining but the play lacks a scary edge. The Otranto Castle plays more as Gothic adventure romance than a pure horror work. It does have a macabre tone but the romanticism dominates. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you enjoy seeing a Gothic novel come to life as I do, then The Castle of Otranto will thoroughly entertain you. Once the folks at First Folio Theatre get accustomed to all elements of their chapel turned stage, their productions will benefit. David Rice’s world premiere is sure worth a look. It is slick, well staged and well performed.
At Mayslake Peabody Estate, Rt 83 & 31st Street, Oakbrook, IL