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A CurtainUp Review
Red-Eye to Havre de Grace
By Elyse Sommer
After weeks of Broadway musicals I looked forward to something more cutting edge and on a smaller scale and Red-Eye Havre De Grace certainly meets those expectations. Just four performers, scenic design relying on consisting a couple of chairs, a table and door to create various locales, and an eerie, nightmarish story about Poe's last days before his never fully explained death in a Baltimore hospital.
Before I continue, a caveat: Except for a light and chatty scene setting opening by Jeremy William posing as a ranger for the United States National Park Service at the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site in Philadelphia, this is a dark, moody piece directed at a leisurely place by Director Thaddeus Phillips to evoke the sense of a never ending nightmare. Though visually compelling it's likely to be a long 90 minutes for anyone not enamored of the avant-garde.
If music and choreography categorizes what's on stage as a musical, Red-Eye. . . fits that bill. It features rather soulful music predominantly operatic music by the the Wilhelm Brothers (Jeremy, who plays the Ranger and other characters, sings; David plays the piano). The choreography by Sophie Bortolussi as performed by Alessandra L. Larson as the ghostly Victoria adds energy to the story even as it heightens the terror of Poe's ghost-ridden a journey. Ultimately, this musical meditation on the final days of an emotionally and financially troubled literary celebrity writer is as mysterious and macabre as his poems and short stories.
The action follows Poe — depressed, impoverished and weakened from years of addiction to alcohol and laudunum — to Philadelphia for a presentation to Pennsylvania Literary Society in 1849 and his failure to get back home to New York and his beloved mother-in-law/aunt "Muddy." The fragile threads of sanity holding him together fray completely with each misstep along the way and the ghostly visions of his long dead wife and cousin Virginia whom he married when she was just thirteen. (Signs of something not quite right about Poe? Or, as the narrating character known as the Ranger assures us is a case of "different times.")
Like the literary figures whose life and works New York Theatre Workshop has fruitfully explored in the past (William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Ernest Hemingway), the text of Red-Eye to Havre De Grace contains many of Poe's own words — from poems and other writings as well as his letters to the mother-in-law whose presence in his life has apparently kept him grounded. A projection screen eases and expedites the viewer's ability to identify the source material and understand where we are in this biographical ghost story.
Poe has been as much written about as read. His place in history for his somber, macabre poems and the mystery fiction he popularized is so firmly established that he's even appeared as a character in other writers'works. These fictionalized Poe characters exploited his "mad genius" image, and while the Lucidity Suitcase International's story of Poe's last days is also imagined by the creators of the piece, the text excerpts and the plot development are in keeping with the collective's established mission of using "documentary footage, transformational scenography, improvisation, and research to create theatrical epics that peer into not-often seen worlds."
Jeremy Wilhelm moves effortlessly between his several characters. He also has a fine voice. Ean Sheehy not only embodies the tortured Poe but looks remarkably like him. Mr. Phillips' most dynamic directorial touches pertain to the choreography. The way Ms. Larson's Victoria makes her entrance by literally rising out of the floor is a knockout, as is a tango dance on stilts. But it's while wearing his second hat as scenic designer that Phillips really shines. The seemingly effortless rearrangement of those tables and doors to create train compartments and other rooms is truly amazing.
The "Havre de Grace" of the title refers to a station in Baltimore where Poe lands when he takes a train headed in the opposite direction from New York. And while the sum of this production's many eye-popping and interesting parts doesn't add up to quite the exhilarating excitement and originality of Lucidity's Suitcase Intercontinental's 2006 ElConquistador ( review), it's worth checking out by anyone who appreciates the more adventurous spirit of companies like this and venues like NYTW who provide them with a place to show off their talent and imagination.