Poe’s Existentialism by Gaslight
The Completely Fictional-Utterly True-Final Strange Tale of Edgar Allan Poe by Stephen Thorne, Trinity Repertory Company, Dowling Theater, 5/6/11-6/11/11, http://www.trinityrep.com/on_stage/current_season/ST.php.
Reviewed by Becca Kidwell
Something delightfully macabre is happening at Trinity Rep. Even Edgar Allan Poe is beside himself–literally. Stephen Thorne spins an atmospheric tale that combines true facts, speculation, and gothic fiction in his new play The Completely Fictional-Utterly True-Final Strange Tale of Edgar Allan Poe. Trinity Rep’s world premiere entices the senses, questions reality, questions meaning, and ushers in a new form of ghost story.
Thorne’s play begins with Edgar Allan Poe in the hospital–unsure of how he got there but the attendants tell him he is dying. Poe explores his own demise and tries to find meaning through the senses. In the first act, he denies that he is dying and tries to discover a way to stop death. His memory of his work with a mesmerist only to return to his hospital bed. In the second act, he tries to blame his younger self for his current condition. But, as he confronts his younger self, Young Poe decides to end the pain and bitterness actively. The third act sends Poe to a higher philosophical state. He calls upon Charles Dickens to try to understand the experience he has gone through and the experiences that is going through. Like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and Vladimir and Estragon in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Stephen Thorne’s Poe seeks answers to unanswerable questions; only through storytelling can Poe account for his own experiences, even though he cannot really account for his own experiences.
Brian McEleney demonstrates his versatility as he steps out from the director’s chair (Absurd Person Singular and The Crucible) and embodies Edgar Allan Poe. Poe controls all of the action and yet the action controls him. McEleney displays the contradiction, confusion, restraint, and agitation that Poe might have suffered upon his own demise. Charlie Thurston, as Young Poe, mirrors McEleney’s performance. Unlike his counterpart, Young Poe has not yet become embittered and acts with confidence and abandon. By the end of act two, the older Poe has lived out the moral of his tale “William Wilson” by not accepting responsibility for his own pain and misery.
Lauren Lubow plays the sweet wife of Poe, Virginia. Her innocence and pain is multiplied as she torments both Poes. Phyllis Kay haunts the stage as death and Poe’s mother. For the majority of the time she is silent, but when she speaks, the gravity in her tone of voice and in the words reaches into the depth of the human soul. Fred Sullivan, Jr. plays the genial, yet arrogant, Charles Dickens. The Charles Dickens of the play is primarily a construct of Poe’s own imagination; however, Sullivan challenges what little control Poe truly has over anything by allowing Dickens to be insubordinate and critical of Poe’s thoughts. Fred Sullivan, Jr. contrasts McEleney’s neurotic Poe by giving Dickens strength, presence, and a British literary swagger. Angela Brazil, Stephen Berenson, Mauro Hantman, and Joe Wilson, Jr. amplify the tension as doctors, nurses, and scientists.
The set design by Susan Zeeman Rogers and the lighting design by Keith Parham create an ominous Victorian salon for Poe’s story. Parham utilizes lighting techniques from early theatre productions that cast odd shadows and heighten the eerie atmosphere. Curt Columbus uses the folded dollhouse set to move in and out of each reality and fiction. Columbus honors the gothic storytelling tradition and transports the audience to the Victorian period.
It is hard to decide where Poe ends and Stephen Thorne begins; Thorne has fully possessed the mood, tone, and style of Poe’s work in such a way that one could imagine that Poe had actually possessed him. Out of the darkness comes illumination of how human beings examine and try to avoid death. Trinity Rep’s cohesive production that fills the audience fear, trembling, and wonder. TNETG. 5/15/11.