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Theater Review: Poe, at Trinity Rep

Friday, May 13, 2011

 

There's a well-known critical adage about the length of a film's title correlating, in opposite fashion, to its quality.

It might give one pause, then, to consider the latest offering at Trinity Repertory Company: The Completely Fictional - Utterly True - Strange Final Tale of Edgar Allan Poe.

That's a mouthful. Not only does the title's length bring this cautionary adage to mind, but its stylized tone evokes a Cask-of-Amontillado dread about witnessing this new work premiering at Trinity and written by company member Stephen Thorne.

Would the play be an earnest yet sophomoric attempt to give us Poe as known through his most famous stories and poetry? Would the play mimic the writer's endlessly uttered, singsong lines? Would we get an animatronic Poe, a three-dimensional term paper penned by a smart kid?

No.

A formidable effort, pushing past conventions

What's on stage at Trinity is a formidable effort by Thorne, who gets credit for pushing hard past standard bio-play conventions such as subject-audience monologues of cozy, corner-cutting exposition. There is none of that here. Also, Poe avoids references to major works such as "House of Usher," "Tell-Tale Heart," and "The Pit and the Pendulum." (Two scenes have Poe reciting stanzas of "The Raven" to enamored, 19th-century New York salon types, but the scenes illustrate his weaknesses as poet and vulnerabilities as a man.) Further, Thorne skirts Poe's months in Providence entirely, an admirable avoidance of playing to the hometown crowd.

This ambitious work (albeit it feels like its final, tighter form has not yet been achieved) uses three acts and three corresponding works by Poe to examine aspects of his life, reflect on his emotional struggles with the loss of his mother in his infancy, and show his striving to reach into the deepest, darkest corners of human existence.

A gorgeous, tempered performance

In places, supported by a gorgeous, tempered performance by the deeply talented Brian McEleney as Poe and given headstrong, youthful recklessness by Charlie Thurston as Poe's younger doppelganger, the play works compellingly, even movingly. Further, the scenic design by Susan Zeeman Rogers and lighting by Keith Parhmam provide a rich and provocative setting that is letter-perfect. From the pure whites of Poe's hospital room in Baltimore to the blood-red trappings of both New York salon life and Poe's own afterlife, the setting imbues the work with the kind of texture that the best production design does. The play is among the most beautifully apt that Trinity has created all season.

Flaws of rhapsodic excess

But not unlike the works of that sadly tormented writer who died after being found ill and delirious in the streets of Baltimore in 1849, this play has flaws of overstatement and rhapsodic excess. Thorne reaches too many places, particularly in the first act, which has an overly dramatic opening that felt like it was Christmas Carol all over again. A long section featuring Thorne's wife, Angela Brazil, as a female version of Poe's M. Valdemar, is way too talky. It's here that the straight edges that appear, spotlit and menacing, in Poe's own hands, might be applied with a sharp, clinical eye, to the text.

The same must be said of the third act, which opens with Poe, dead, in park-bench-style conversation with Charles Dickens, brought to curmudgeonly form by Fred Sullivan, Jr. Artistically blocked and intimately acted by McEleney and Sullivan, it's wonderful stuff. And much credit here, as throughout, should be given to Thorne's sharp ear and mature and nuanced sense of language. But as Poe strives to know more and faces the the Red Death of his own devising, the play loses focus. Again, more stringent and driven editing might harness Thorne's smart intentions and give this promising play a dramatic arc it deserves.

This is the very type of work that should come to stage first in places like Providence, with the support of an artistic heavyweight like Trinity. But now, let's hope this work gets the strenuous examination it merits, and prepare it for even bigger places. And perhaps, then, the title can condense, fold in on itself as the best language of poetry does, and give us, simply, Poe - from which the blinding white, pungent crimson, and deathly black world of Stephen Thorne can emerge.

The Completely Fictional - Utterly True - Final Strange Tale of Edgar Allan Poe, running through June 5. Trinity Repertory Company, 201 Washington St, Providence. Call 351-4242 for tickets, or go here.

Photos: Brian McEleney and Charlie Thurston, above; Fred Sullivan, Jr. and Brian McEleney, below. Photos by Mark Turek.
 

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