Reviewed by George Basler
Murder and madness were on display this past weekend in the Southern Tier. So was despair and longing for lost love. They came courtesy of Nevermore: An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe staged by the Binghamton-based Half Light Theatre.
The production was an adaptation of 10 poems and stories by the famous American author best known for tales of mystery and macabre. Half Light Theatre booked the Phelps Mansion Museum in Binghamton for Friday and Saturday’s performances (Jan. 18 and 19) while scheduling Sunday’s at the 1890 House Museum in Cortland (Jan. 20).
The production, which I saw at the Phelps Mansion, was an uneven one., but, at its best, it was innovative and daring and provided an engrossing look at Poe’s work. A big plus was Artistic Director Missy Harris’ decision to stage the show as an immersive experience. Actors performed up-close to audience members as they moved from room to room in the mansion. The building’s 19th century décor complemented the mood of Poe’s works.
Nevermore is very much a labor of love for Harris, who describes herself a huge Poe fan. She adapted the 10 pieces and directed the production that also features original music by Jan DeAngelo, Monica Gill and Jeff Wahl. The segments ranged from well-known stories and poems, such as “The Raven” and “The Tell-Tale Heart”, to lesser-known works, such as “Ligeia,” a bizarre short story that features two dead wives, a distraught husband and an opium-induced hallucination.
While Poe’s stories have lent themselves to numerous Hollywood horror films, the Half Light production did not look to scare its audience. There were no shocking special effects, no blood and the mansion was not turned into haunted house. Instead, the production focused on the psychological nuances and heartbreak of Poe’s stories and poems.
The approach provides some strong moments. A case in point was the staging of “The Tell -Tale Heart,” arguably Poe’s most famous story about murderer whose crime is undone by psychological guilt. Chris Nickerson gave an intense and effective performance that mixed moments of ghoulish humor with moments that were truly disturbing. The portrayal made your skin crawl.
Another haunting vignette was Harris’ performance of the song “Ballad of the Bride,” which she co-wrote with DeAngelo. The song is based on Poe’s tale “The Oval Portrait” in which a young bride of “rarest beauty” dies unnoticed by her eccentric and obsessed husband as he paints her portrait. Harris performed the song in an almost trance-like state. The result was an elegiac moment that caught the plaintive nature of the song.
Equally fine was the staging of “Annabel Lee,” Poe’s famous poem about memories of a lost love, and the next-to-last scene, “The Masque of the Red Death,” in which the dim lighting of Phelps’ ballroom heightened the tension.
Less successful was the staging of “The Cask of Amontillado” in which the narrator (Julia Adams) entombs her enemy alive behind a wall.
Adams was suitably cold blooded in her role while Rich Kumpon did a fine job conveying the victim’s stupidity and boastful arrogance, but the impact of the scene was undone by staging that lacked a dramatic finale. The sealing of the tomb was done in an almost perfunctory manner. What should have been harrowing came across as anti-climatic
The other members of the nine-person cast provided solid performances. Mike Pucek played Poe as a haunted, melancholy person, which perfectly fit the tone of Nevermore. Another standout was Ciano Briga who had the difficult task of presenting a long monologue in “Ligeia” during which a despairing husband rages while chugging down repeated glasses of opium.
Briga’s appearance was striking, and his performance was suitably melodramatic. The story, though, was something of a rambling hodge-podge that fell flat. Moreover, it’s filled with language that is overly florid by today’s standards. Some critics maintain Poe wrote “Ligeia” as a satire of Gothic fiction popular at the time. If so, this satire is certain to go over the head of modern audiences.
In summary, Nevermore required some familiarity with the Poe’s work and a tolerance for 19th century histrionics, but it certainly had its share of rewards. Harris and the Half Light deserve to be applauded for an effort outside the norm, and Poe fans who attended were sure to find much to like. (NOTE: I attended the preview/final dress rehearsal. All three performances were sold out.)
THIS JUST IN: Additional performances have been scheduled for 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. Feb. 2 at the 1890 House Museum, Cortland. Call 607-201-5850 or email email@example.com for tickets. Half Light is hoping to also add performances at a Binghamton venue.