I think it’s only natural that Stuart Gordon and Dennis Paoli, the creative team behind “Re-animator” and “From Beyond,” have brought Edgar Allen Poe to the stage. After all, they’re responsible for the only two H.P. Lovecraft adaptations that actually did the original work justice, and Lovecraft and Poe are not that far removed from each other when it comes to the theme of dread.
Besides, the play’s concept is brilliant. What if Poe had put on a one man show to help pay off his debts a year before he died? His poem “The Raven” was popular at the time and it had gotten him enough name recognition that this is within the realm of the possible, even if it is improbable considering how sick with the drink he was by then.
Poe talks about his life, drinks, performs the Tell-Tale Heart, drinks, trash talks Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, drinks, talks about his current woes, drinks, and ends with a rousing rendition of “The Raven.” Did I mention he drinks? Poe is on the last legs of the alcoholism which would kill him by 1849. Yet, at the same time, he’s charming and witty and funny and smart. He may not have ever stepped foot on a stage, the thought may never have crossed his mind, but the play gives you the feeling that he could have. Moreover, it gives you the feeling he would have been good at it.
Jeffrey Combs’ interpretation of Poe is not so much an acting job as channelling the spirits of the unquiet dead. There wasn’t one minute where I felt that I was watching the man play a role. Instead, I was watching Edgar Allen Poe with some vague notion that an actor was portraying him. Not surprising really, if anyone could be resurrected for the modern stage, it’s Poe. He had been haunting the world as a living ghost long before he died. Poe was a man devoured by suffering. His pain was the very ink he used to pen his stories, and you can sense the hurt so vividly reading his work it’s a wonder the paper doesn’t weep.
However, to me, the most fascinating thing to me about Poe is how modern he is in retrospect. His life history will be sadly familiar to anyone who knows an alcoholic, from the chaotic childhood, to the quick temper, to the inability to succeed, to the constant pleas for money. The thing not apparent to the modern reader though, is how his contemporaries probably saw him as an oversensitive dandy prone to weepy contemplation. Haunted by the dead? In those days people died at the drop of a dime and the average person would go to more funerals in a year than most of us attend in a lifetime. If everyone had been as haunted as he was, there wouldn’t have been any place for the living.
Yet he was haunted. So much so that, even today, ghosts could still be felt during the night’s performance. The play encourages it. From Combs’ lugubrious voice, to the deep gloomy shadows flickering in the candlelight, things could not have been more funereal if there’d been a closed coffin on stage. The occasional gentle scratching coming from inside the lid, of course.
“I drink… to the dead.” Poe intones at one point, the first modern man.
The result is that we, one hundred and sixty one years after he died and almost two hundred years after he was born, understand the man in ways that none of his contemporaries ever did. We empathize and agree with him, to a point. Poe, after all, cannot hide how self-destructive and desperate he is no matter how much he wishes that he could. However, he’s also a born showman who knows how to work a crowd. All long-time alcoholics are. So by the end Poe has the audience completely under his spell, and when the curtains close we mourn the loss of a man who died too young and who still had much great work left in him.
Stuart Gordon, Dennis Paoli and Jeffrey Combs can sleep undisturbed knowing they’ve done right by not just one, but two, horror greats. Lovecraft himself, who’d been a huge fan of Poe, would be proud.
“Nevermore” played for two sold out shows at the Fantasia Film Festival. We will now exit “Stage Threat” and return you to your regularly scheduled film criticism.