Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary – I wager that most of you recognize this line. As well, you have the feeling that there is a Nevermore lurking somewhere near by. Ah yes – that old Edgar Allen Poe fellow. The gloomy, and often terrifying, poet to whom most of us were introduced when we were in our early teenage years. My friend and I reflected on that delicious fact at the intermission of Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe at the New World Stages. How was is that our tender little brains were asked to focus on this particular writer. It was all murder and guilt and gloom. Sometimes trochaic octameter, sometimes prose. And there we were lapping it up. Because it was compelling. There was, in Poe’s work, something revealed about the man himself. We were reading Poe himself as well as his stories
In this production, so exquisitely executed, Poe is the very thing that is missing. Scott Shpeley, is onstage the entire time. The story is that Poe is on a steamer going to New York while is fiancée, his childhood sweetheart, awaits back home. He meets a group of actors who knew of his mother, the actress Eliza Poe, and soon they are off to the races with a sort of This Is Your Life 19th century style.
What follows is a beautifully executed musical travelogue od Poe’s life. From the very beginning he was surrounded by people who left him His father walked out. He mother died. He was separated from his siblings and sent to live with the Allan family. Women he loved died. And on and on and on.
But wait! It was the early 19th century, was it not? People were dropping right and left as a matter of course. Breathing alone was a dodgy bit of business. Penicillin was years away. Beer was preferable to water. Bathing was a luxury. Living a long life was a possibility but not likely. Which is why, in the end, none of these incidents – even combined – seems enough to drag Poe into the sad state where he dwelled. He wasn’t special because of his circumstances. We all know the cliff notes of Poe’s life. This production does not provide us with a deeper examination or new viewpoint. It simply dresses up the story we already know.
To be sure, this Poe is a narrative told with style – the set and costumes have an Edward Gorey meets Dr. Seuss precision and whimsy. The choreography is spare and edgy. The performers, almost to a person, are gems. The direction is spot on. The script entirely in verse and the music moves in and out of the tale seamlessly. A sort of Sweeny Todd atmosphere pervades throughout.
With this production, we are left with a story that has no glue, no center, no elements of conflict and desire. Thus, the execution of the tale cannot do more than keep us entertained and awake. The performers are hobbled. They cannot make magic out of the absence of plot.
In the end, all the sound and fury signifies nothing. And we, like Poe, are melancholy.
Nevermore – The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe -Written, composed and directed by Jonathan Christenson
Choreography by Laura Krewski; production design by Bretta Gerecke; sound by Wade Staples; music producer, Matthew Skopyk; production stage manager, Candice Charney; voice, speech and text director, Betty Moulton; production supervisor, Production Core; company manager, Susan Keappock; associate producers, Carol L. Bixler and Deepa Desai; general manager, D R Theatrical Management. Presented by Radio Mouse Entertainment, Martin Hummel, Caiola Productions, Terry Schnuck, Susan Jaffe Tane, Hernreich- Horvath Productions and Catalyst Theater, in association with Fireboat Productions, Mary Cossette and Meredith Lynsey Schade. At New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street, Clinton; 212-239-6200, nevermoreshow.com. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes.
WITH: Gaelan Beatty (Henry Poe/Ensemble), Shannon Blanchet (Elmira Royster/Ensemble), Beth Graham (Rosalie Poe/Fanny Allan/Sissy Clemm/Ensemble), Ryan Parker (Rufus Griswold/Ensemble), Garett Ross (David Poe/Jock Allan/Ensemble), Scott Shpeley (Edgar) and Lindsie VanWinkle (Eliza Poe/Louise Gabriella/Muddy Clemm/Ensemble).