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Edgar Allan Poe--Once Upon A Midnight

Peacock Productions, at Mercury Theater

By Lawrence Bommer

One of America's most enduring and familiar authors, Edgar Allan Poe nonetheless remains an enigmatic figure. There are so many Edgar Allan Poes to choose from--the morbid mourner whose raven remains a symbol of pathological romantic obsession, the literary visionary who invented the detective story and perfected poetic rhythms and synesthesia, the surprisingly gentle and devoted family man, the opportunistic plagiarist and ruthless self-promoter, the humorist (who apologized to a friend for not keeping a pet raven), the idealist who speculated on and embraced the nature of the universe.

Actors and playwrights continue to try to catch this elusive, protean figure. In the 1980 Poe, which I wrote for the Organic Theater and Stuart Gordon staged, the mystery man was imagined at the end of his short span. As he slowly passes away, his life and art pass before him--indistinguishably, because Poe's worst nightmares were his memories. Page Hearn's 1994 A Descent Into the Maelstrom: An Evening With Edgar Allan Poe, staged at Live Bait Theater, presented a poet-martyr haunted by the "imp of the perverse," his term for our fascination with our fears. On opening night Hearn suddenly realized that he'd walked onstage without his wig, and the look of terror on his face was as convincing as anything he simulated while describing the pit or the pendulum. Rolfe Sanberg Jr.'s 1996 Poe: Never, Nevermore..., staged by Shakespeare's Gale Force, emphasized the Grand Guignol creepiness of the master of the macabre. The play peaked with a rendition of "The Masque of the Red Death" that became an AIDS-like metaphor for our fear of death.

Now the Mercury Theater is presenting Edgar Allan Poe--Once Upon a Midnight. The supple and potentially potent script by Poe aficionados Paul Day Clemens and Ron Magid suggests the contradictions and complexities of a tortured genius as Poe, pleads his case against a bad press by citing his multiple miseries.

John Astin's Poe, come back from the dead, enters the stage fiercely, unpacking his carpetbag and insisting, "What do I care?" about what people think of him. Then he spends the next two hours elaborately defending himself against attacks by envious enemies.

We learn of the cruelties of his cheapskate stepfather, his self-aborted career at West Point, and the death of his child bride, Virginia Clemm, in 1847. These blows are exacerbated by binges with alcohol and laudanum and his often heedless pursuit of fame, as well as by the contempt of his contemporaries. He's particularly incensed at the treachery of Dr. Rufus Griswold, a literary executor Poe picked to preserve his works, who instead launched a campaign of vilification against the dead writer that fouled his reputation for decades. Griswold lambasted Poe's moral turpitude (he did marry his cousin when she was only 13) and his penchant for booze (with his low tolerance for alcohol, a single glass of sherry could trigger a spree).

Poe strikes back, arguing that life was a pain for which anything he took was insufficient anesthesia. The fear of consumption (symbolized in John Boesche's projections by a rose exploding into blood), which killed Poe's mother and wife, is rightly linked to the horrific death scenes and premature burials of Poe's not-so-fictional imaginings, such as "The Facts of the Case of M. Valdemar"--one of the too few stories the script dramatizes.

This Poe even discourses on his own death in 1849, the event his fiction had seemingly rehearsed again and again. Its details remain in dispute: Clemens and Magid cling to the old theory that Poe was caught up in a local election campaign in Baltimore, got plied with booze, and drank himself into a heart attack. New evidence suggests a cause Poe would have found grist for his mill--rabies.

But despite the posthumous perspective, we never learn why this Poe tells us so much. A playwright's indifference to motivation is often the bane of one-person shows, unless--as with Christopher Plummer in Barrymore or Julie Harris in The Belle of Amherst--the actor breaks the fourth wall, makes clear to the audience why he's there, and shows us the famous personage changing as he tells his tale. Astin's Poe never struggles against himself or makes any discoveries in the present tense.

Worse, we get little of Poe's famous horror or detective stories. Instead a large portion of the second act reduces Poe from a powerful visionary to a crackbrained philosopher by focusing on the metaphysical mumbo jumbo of his pseudophilosophical "Eureka: A Prose Poem." According to the program, this 1848 lecture, a "transcendental" explanation of the universe, is a major reason for the Peacock Productions venture. If so it's a pity. Dismissed by many scholars as nonsense, "Eureka" is a weak basket for anyone's eggs, with its scattershot cosmological speculations about the unity of time and space and the interpenetration of matter and spirit--and it can't make up for the absence of Poe's vivid writings. With so many Poes to choose from, why fasten on this oddball occultist?

Still, the content could compel, given the right production. But Alan Bergmann's staging is strictly by the numbers, and Astin's range is maddeningly limited. A distinguished and classically trained actor, Astin deserves credit for taking such a risk late in his career, but he can't get beyond the campy romanticism of Gomez Addams, still his most representative role. A comic actor with an impish leer and a permanent twinkle, he's hard pressed to convey Poe's desperation without undercutting it with a wink, as if to assure us that there will be no descent into any maelstrom tonight.

It's not Astin's fault that the play stops short of depicting a definitive Poe. But the text does offer rhapsodies and cynicism and the bathos of a relentless careerist--which Astin deflates, giving us either forced frenzy or casual confessions. Poe's demons emerge as weak and timid creatures, emanations of the spleen more than tormentors of the psyche. Pouncing on words rather than emotions, Astin's Poe is more buffoon than driven dreamer. The poems suffer most. The recitation of "Annabel Lee" and "The Raven" will convert no one who thinks Poe is, as his contemporaries called him, "Mr. Jingle." Dreary indeed.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still.

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