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BWW Review: THE MADNESS OF POE at Synetic Theater

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Synetic Theater's Latest Production Updates A Classic

BWW Review: THE MADNESS OF POE at Synetic Theater

As befitting the month of October, Synetic Theater's latest production, The Madness of Poe, features the works of America's favorite dark writer, Edgar Allen Poe. The production incorporates Synetic's previous mounting of The Fall of the House of Usher, as well as The Raven and references to his life and other works.

(Plot summary below - skip this paragraph to avoid spoilers)

The Madness of Poe opens with Edgar asleep at his writing desk. He awakens to visions of his lost love, Lenore, and the two discuss his writer's block and whether the bells that toll are for a wedding or a funeral. Poe leans into time with his love even as he carries the grief of her loss, but is shattered when he watches her sicken and die again, leaving him in darkness. It is as he is feeling this loss anew and haunted by a raven that he receives a letter from his friend, Roderick Usher, begging him to visit. Ahead of Poe's arrival, the audience is introduced to Roderick and Madeline, who share an intimate dance before she suffers from a seizure; Roderick lovingly lays her out more comfortably, and waits for her to recover with his arms around her and his head on her chest. When she does, she becomes agitated about their situation, and he eventually calms her with an opium pipe. When Edgar arrives, he is shocked by Roderick's disheveled appearance, and concerned as Roderick fills him in on the Usher family curse - all members of the family have gone mad and died tragically, and he is determined that he and his sister, Madeline, will be the end of the line. Over the course of Poe's stay, he watches his friends deteriorate while continuing to be haunted by the raven stalking his dreams. Things come to a head when Madeline asks Poe for help escaping Roderick's control and succumbs to a seizure. Roderick buries Madeline in a glass casket in the family crypt and mourns her with Poe, but it turns out she was still alive. She breaks out of the casket and drags Roderick to their mutual death, pushing Poe out of the way and out of the haunted home as she does so. Poe then awakens at his desk once more, once again haunted by dreams of Lenore and the raven.

BWW Review: THE MADNESS OF POE at Synetic Theater
Ryan Sellers as Edgar and Maryam Najafzada as The Raven in Synetic's The Madness of Poe. Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

The production has some strong elements, particularly on the technical side. Immediately, I was in love with Alexa Duimstra and Stacy Walker's costumes, which were a beautiful blend of historical and functional for dance, especially for the lead women. The ensemble's shrouded costumes, used for recurring sequences, were likewise simple and effective. I found the Raven costume to be a bit more menacing than I would have anticipated, but it fit the part quite well, especially the metallic wingtips. I also really enjoyed the cleverness of Justin Schmitz's sound design, particularly in the opening scene with the opening and closing of the window to let in and block out the sound of the bells outside. Phil Charlwood's set pieces were wonderful, particularly the sentient walls of the House of Usher as Poe fled the home. Nutsa Tediashvili, as Madeline, was captivating whenever she was on stage. Ryan Sellers' titular character was also fairly strong, though it occasionally seemed as though he wasn't given much direction for the scenes in which he was more observer than participant. Alex Mills was convincingly erratic as Roderick, and it was fun to watch him physically deteriorate as his madness took hold. Megan Khaziran's Lenore was hauntingly sweet, and Philip Fletcher's Servant was sufficiently creepy. Maryam Najafzada's Raven was at times an odd presence because it wasn't quite clear where she fit, but in the scenes where she was leading Poe's own internal tortures, her presence was quite poignant. The rest of the ensemble nicely embodied the haunting roles they held; they often reminded me of Greek Furies.

However, I find myself a bit confused about some of the artistic decisions made for this production. While I understand that Synetic's previous production of The Fall of the House of Usher gave the company a wealth of material to incorporate, it felt as though this was really more of a restaging than a new production. While there were elements brought in to tie in The Raven and other works, it was still the focal point and the majority of the show; the other tales felt more like afterthoughts, and the combination felt forced rather than an expansion of Poe's world.

BWW Review: THE MADNESS OF POE at Synetic Theater
Alex Mills as Roderick and Nutsa Tediashvili as Madeline in Synetic's The Madness of Poe. Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

Perhaps the biggest frustration with The Madness of Poe is that it feels like it is building up to Poe's breaking point, but never quite gets there. While Poe is mourning the loss of Lenore, concerned about Roderick and Madeline, and even admittedly sharing into the visions Roderick has of the Usher family home (though who hasn't felt a bit of a vibe in a creepy building or been drawn in by a friend's distress?), what we're presented with is a man more haunted than mad; indeed, Poe is portrayed as quite sane, and consistently so throughout the production. I kept expecting to watch him slowly give in to Roderick's delusions about the home's hold, or to spiral into insanity after a particularly startling event (and there were plenty to choose from). But, instead, Poe is almost just along for the ride, an observer of the madness rather than a participant. This is also why the finale felt so drawn out - it felt as though it were six different finales, each with impressive elements, but somehow feeling as though it was unclear what the final message was supposed to be. First, Poe is haunted by his time at the Usher house. Then, Lenore is calling to him, an embodiment of his grief he can't reach. Then he's haunted once more by the characters we've met and the raven - the cry of "Nevermore!" seemed to indicate a big finish, but then the haunting figures returned once more for another round. It just kept going, hitting big finish points more than once and never quite ceasing, to the point that I couldn't understand the purpose any longer. After a while, I gave up trying to make sense of it for fear of going mad myself, and just sat back to wait for the ending to finally arrive.

Overall, Synetic's production didn't quite meet the standard it set for itself, but was enjoyable enough. Fans of the original staging of the Fall of the House of Usher and theater-goers who enjoy productions with a bit of a spooky element for this time of year will likely enjoy the performance. But fans of Poe - the man, or just his other works - may need to temper their expectations.

Synetic Theater's production of The Madness of Poe is playing through October 31st. Tickets are available on the Synetic Theater website for both regular performances and a special performance as part of the October 29th Vampire Ball. Per the Synetic Theater Website, Content Advisory: The Madness of Poe features mature themes including scenes depicting intimacy, incest, sexual assault, seizures, mental illness, drug use, and strobe effects.


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