The mysterious death of Edgar Allan Poe in 1849, at age 40, has always been perfect fodder for artistic interpretation. And in Poe
, the latest project from Theatre Downtown, we’re treated to a unique, largely fictional glimpse at not just his final four days but what might have gone through his fevered brain before he breathed his last.
Despite the setup, which involves Poe being beaten outside a Baltimore tavern and left for dead, this production isn’t really about his demise. Instead, it’s an intriguing yet jumbled portrait of the author’s life, beliefs and writings.
The play, written in 1970 by Stephen Most, has been performed at least once before by Theatre Downtown, most notably in 1989 when it was directed by founder and artistic director Frank Hilgenberg, who also helms the current production (with effective choreography by Darci Ricciardi and fight direction by Jason Skinner). The script is memorable, though a bit clumsy, and has a certain grace in its surreal mix of straight narrative and dream sequences. But its complexity requires a strong cast, and the 12-person ensemble is not up to the task, especially because almost everyone is required to play multiple parts.
Chris Prueitt embodies Poe aesthetically and hits some emotional highs, particularly in scenes with his adoptive father (the intense John Moughan), but he’s only intermittently believable. Gemma Victoria also has nice moments as Poe’s mother-in-law, but the only one who shines consistently is Jolie Hart as Poe’s greatest love, the tragic Virginia Clemm (renamed Eleonora here to match Poe’s stories). In general, the characterizations are too broad, lack both nuance and naturalism, and reek of the over-enthusiasm too common in community theater. The moody lighting (by Roy Cedric Brown) and masquerade-style costume design (by Fran Hilgenberg) are nice touches, and scenes of Poe’s wedding and Eleonora’s death are moving, but they are compromised by some mini-disasters. Among those debacles are a scene of police interrogation with some dreadful overacting and astonishingly bad accents, and an unintentionally hilarious squeaking rat who crawls his way into Poe’s death scene. Seriously.
As a lover of Poe and a supporter of Theatre Downtown, I wish I could give a more full-hearted endorsement to this ambitious project, but it just doesn’t congeal. Still, if you feel like ignoring my humble opinion and seeing it anyway, at least you know your money will help finance the effort to find the production company a new home. Hey, even Poe wouldn’t want to see Theatre Downtown wither away and die.
Theatre Downtown – Orlando, Fla.
Length: 70 minutes
Rating: All ages (Mild Violence, Adult Situations)