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Theater Review | Poe is brought to life on stage

ArtsEmerson’s experimental production is wildly successful

Published: Thursday, February 20, 2014

Updated: Thursday, February 20, 2014 08:02

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Johanna Austin courtesy ArtsEmerson

“Red-Eye to Havre de Grace” (2012), an action-opera brought to Boston as part of ArtsEmerson’s “Pioneers” series, details the last days of Edgar Allan Poe’s life. More shocking than conventional, the show contains a little history -- as told through Poe’s letters to his mother -- and a lot of artistic interpretation, especially of the author’s deteriorating mental health. Before the curtain rises, a man walks on stage and introduces himself as Ranger Steve (Jeremy Wilhelm), a representative from the Edgar Allan Poe House in Philadelphia. He takes the audience through a short -- if unexpectedly casual -- description of the historical context of the play. As he concludes, Ranger Steve pulls out a crumpled sheet of paper to recite one of his favorite poems by Poe while the lights dim and a piano builds slowly in the background. A few lines into his reading, Ranger Steve goes from open-mic-night-at-the-local-library mode to a full-blown operatic rendering of Poe’s “Ligeia” (1838).

This trick sets the tone for the whole performance. The show proceeds with a mix of history and humor as “Red-Eye” constantly interrupts Poe’s somber poetry with the blunt, low-brow jokes of our anachronistic park ranger. At one point in the show, Neil Diamond’s song “Done Too Soon” (1967) plays over Poe’s passionate reading of “The Raven” (1845), only to end with a blithe comment from Ranger Steve. In fact, the character often interrupts the intensity of the play with quips, as he changes roles from train conductor to hotel clerk to ambient clarinetist. In another scene, Poe (Ean Sheehy) grieves over his dead wife Virginia (Sophie Bortolussi) as she climbs over him and through a patch of fake grass, disappearing into the floor of the stage. Here, when the lights are at their darkest, Ranger Steve interrupts the moment to ask Poe if he needs a chair.

Brought to Boston through the combined efforts of Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental and musical duo Wilhelm Bros. & Co., “Red-Eye” is an innovative work of theater. As explained on Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental’s website, the show makes use of “‘rough media,’ documentary footage, transformational scenography, improvisation and research” to pioneer new forms of theatrical storytelling.

The set, too, interacts beautifully with its actors. As Poe walks to his hotel room, Ranger Steve manipulates three four-legged platforms to convey him walking up the stairs. These same platforms are re-purposed throughout the show as doors, ticket windows and rooms, forming a world built in Poe’s deranged mind. In addition to these platforms, a few other set pieces function as both minimalistic representations of setting and metaphorical images, including eight flickering light bulbs and a bed suspended from the ceiling that, at one point, lowers Virginia onto the set.

Sheehy -- sporting a long suit, black mustache and beaten brown shoes -- deftly re-creates the stiff, ghoulish gait typically associated with the dead author. There is a visual tension between Sheehy’s dark appearance and the white-robed innocence of his wife Virginia. Enhanced by Bortolussi’s excellent choreography, the two are set against each other both metaphorically, presenting the idea that Poe’s grief drove him to death, and physically, as the audience witnesses several physical altercations between the two actors. Bortolussi’s fierce, spasmodic choreography creates a conflict that mirrors Poe’s addiction to alcohol and opium.

Overall, the effect is light-hearted and -- for a play about alcoholism, insanity and death -- pretty whimsical. The cast meshes tone and subject matter, and history and fantasy to create a final product that is simaltaneously entertaining and heartbreaking. ArtsEmerson advertises the production as “experimental” programming -- a label which is certainly fitting for “Red-Eye,” with its use of projections and Ranger Steve’s seemingly third-wheel antics. Even among Poe’s dramatic monologues and choreographed routines, director Thaddeus Phillips plugs in bits of humor, casting the grim author in a new, playful light.

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