BWW Reviews: This is Your Gothic Life, Mr. Poe

This-is-Your-Gothic-Life-Mr-Poe-20010101

As autumn shadows grow and winter knocks at your door, you may find yourself craving a little Poe to go with the dark and chill.  Center Stage is at your service with THE COMPLETELY FICTIONAL-UTTERLY TRUE-FINAL STRANGE TALE OF Edgar Allan POE.  

In 1849, Edgar Allan Poe mysteriously appeared in Baltimore, disheveled and disoriented.  What happened to him?  Poe could not have written a better tale than the story of his brilliant, tragic life followed by a strange, unexplained death.

Playwright Stephen Thorne and director Curt Columbus create a feverish dream that swirls around Poe’s deathbed in Baltimore’s Washington College Hospital.   The set, costumes and lighting (by Eugene Lee, David Burdick, and Josh Epstein respectively) provide the ghostly, magical and sometimes ghastly atmospherics that draw the audience right into Poe’s delirious delusions.

Bruce Randolph Nelson, a star of the Baltimore stage, dazzles as he reflects all the aspects of the passionate, eccentric, acerbic genius.   Nelson is virtually Shakespearean in Poe’s defiance of madness and death. Edgar Allan, himself, would approve no doubt. 

Nelson is impressively supported by an ensemble cast of seven talented and energetic actors who transform in and out of the characters that populate Poe’s life and fantasies.  The doctors who hover around his bed become the people who passed through his life.  

His British mother, played lovingly by Naomi Jackson, died from consumption when Poe was a child, one of many sad events that colored his life and work.   Poe’s tendency to gamble himself into debt estranged him from his stepfather, John Allan.   Jimmy Kieffer does a superb job as the menacing father figure and also as Poe’s critical contemporary, Charles Dickens.   Dickens makes Poe rather peevish and their competitive exchange is funny, sharp and smart.

The most riveting scene occurs when the elder Poe engages his younger self in a bitter battle of blame.   Charlie Thurston shines as young Edgar and creates the perfect mirror image from the past to Nelson’s older Poe.   The most emotional scene occurs between Poe and his young bride, Virginia, movingly portrayed by Caroline Kaplan.  Of course, this being Poe, the sentimental is never far from the macabre.

Despite his attraction for the morbid,  Poe is most definitely interested in escaping death and flirted with the occult as portrayed by French mesmerist Valdemar and played with otherworldly dignity by Libya Pugh.  Rounding out this stellar cast is Erick Pinnick,  authoritative as the voice of reason in Dr. Moran, and Kenneth Lee who is especially charming as the Kindly Doctor.

Poe’s struggles are compelling and this theater-in-the-round production will grip you and even make you gasp at times.  It reveals that Poe was more than the father of science fiction and mystery.  Poe’s fascination with darkness and death may have been the flipside to a hidden love of life and light.  

As long as there are playwrights like Thorne and actors like Nelson, Poe will get his wish to live on evermore.

THE COMPLETELY FICTIONAL-UTTERLY TRUE-FINAL STRANGE TALE OF Edgar Allan POE plays through November 25 at CENTERSTAGE, 700 N. Calvert Street.  For tickets, call the box office (410) 332-0033 or  purchase online at www.centerstage.org.

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