Thursday, October 25, 2012

Morbid 'Poe ' Comes to Life at Centerstage

The very instant the pre-show announcements are completed at the Head Theatre at Centerstage, a startling bang rings out, the lights black out simultaneously, and the audience is taken on a time machine to Washington College Hospital in Baltimore in 1849.  Here, an apparently cold disheveled Edgar Allan Poe mysteriously shows up in a state of delirium.  Medical staff cannot determine what he is suffering from, but the prognosis is not good.  Despite his protestations, his demise seems certain, and it is.

Stephen Thorne’s play, The Completely Fictional-Utterly True-Final Strange Tale of Edgar Allan Poe, focuses on the famous author, critic and poet’s death.  He employs a combination of facts, fiction and conjecture to tell a story that is intense in its subject matter and presentation but also sprinkles just enough comedic lines throughout to keep the audience off-balance.

Caroline Kaplan, Bruce Randolph Nelson and Charlie Thurston
Photo: Richard Anderson

But in true Poe fashion, there is ample use of blood and gore.  The gory scene may be a little bit much for the audience’s tastes, however.  I had never attended a play before when there was a collective “eww” in disgust from the audience.  But…this IS Poe!
As Thorne himself wrote in the program notes, “Poe’s ability to mix fact and fiction, imagination and science gives his work a kind of documentary feel at times and a disorienting sensation of truth.”  Mirroring Poe’s fascination with the macabre in many of his works, this morbid, gothic probe into the character’s psyche explores Poe’s “disorienting sensation of truth” while on his deathbed with denial of his death, how it could be stopped and how it came to be.  

Through events and people that come to light (and life) during his hallucinating state, Poe (performed brilliantly by Bruce Randolph Nelson) recalls his association with a mesmerist (played by Libya Pugh) in an attempt to forestall the inevitable but he finds himself on his deathbed at the hospital nonetheless.
Other characters appear during his delirium.  Poe interacts with his mother, Eliza (Naomi Jacobson), a British-born actress who died of consumption (tuberculosis) two years after Poe’s birth.  He meets up with his foster father, John Allan (Jimmy Kieffer) who, along with his wife, had taken him in shortly after.  Allan provided him with material support, but Poe racked up excessive gambling debts which caused an estrangement with the family.

His wife Virginia (Caroline Kaplan) appears.  She was Poe’s cousin and he married her when she was 13.  Sweet and innocent, Virginia felt the pain of Poe’s marriage and she, too, died of consumption 12 years later.
Poe also engages with his contemporary Charles Dickens (also played by Jimmy Kieffer), a figment of his imagination.  Dickens is critical of Poe on several levels, and the exchanges are thought-provoking.  Kieffer’s performances throughout the play are stellar.

But Poe’s most dramatic encounter and the one which works best is with his younger self (Charlie Thurston).  In heated and passionate exchanges, the older Poe blames the younger on his failures.  The younger blames the older on his choices.  Virginia and Eliza also confront both Poe’s.  This is great theatre performed by gifted actors.
In fact, the entire cast is outstanding under the solid direction of Curt Columbus, who like Thorne, debuted this play at the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, RI. 

Rounding out the cast is the kind doctor administering to Poe in the Hospital played wryly by Kenneth Lee and Dr. Moran, the blunt truth teller, played by Erick Pinnick.  They, along with the rest of the cast except for Nelson, are called on to play multiple roles.  They portray those various characters superbly.
At play’s end, the kindly doctor is filling out a form on a 19th century typewriter that Poe would have loved to have used.  The doctor asks Poe what he should include as the cause of death.  We won’t reveal that here, but it could have been any number of possible options though it had to be able to fit in the prescribed place on the form.

Bruce Randolph Nelson plays the title role to the hilt.  Every line and gesture, every movement was delivered with gusto and Shakespearean verve.  Nelson, who is among Baltimore’s most accomplished and acclaimed actors, had won Helen Hayes awards for his work at Rep Stage (The Violet Hour and The Dazzle) and received Helen Hayes nominations for Irma Vep and Faith Healer.  He was also named Best Actor by the City Paper for his work at Everyman Theatre’s Shipwrecked! and The Pavilion.
Poe is presented in the round in the Head Theatre. Scenic Designer Eugene Lee crafted a set that is mostly on a raised platform that is three steps up from the floor in front of the orchestra level.  In the center lies the hospital bed which sinks below and disappears when the scene shifts.  There is also a runway that connects to the floor below the stage.  The outer perimeter of the theater is draped in sheet-like material whereby the shadows of the actors behind them offer a ghoulish feel.   The actors use all available space, even a couple of feet in front of the first row.

Veteran Costume Designer David Burdick deserves a standing ovation for his incredibly authentic period attire for all the characters.  Fastidious in detail, the wardrobe was museum quality and is a major asset to this production.

Lighting Designer Josh Epstein and Sound Designer Zachary Williamson are also effective in conveying the Poe-like atmosphere.
The 50th anniversary season at Centerstage is well underway, and Artistic Director Kwame Kwei-Armah was wise to choose this exceptional play that was timed to begin a week before Halloween.  
The Completely Fictional-Utterly True-Final Strange Tale of Edgar Allan Poe plays at Centerstage through November 25. Tickets start at $10, and can be ordered online at, or by calling 410-332-0033.

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