Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Nevermore (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Just in time for All Hallow's Eve, Theatre Unleashed offers a "secret history" of the most macabre of America's poets--Edgar Allan Poe.  It even opened on the anniversary of the man's mysterious death.

Nevermore, by Matt Ritchey, becomes equal parts mystery and mind game pretty much from the very start.  Poe (Michael Lutheran) arrives at the estate of his childhood friend Montresor (David Foy Bauer) for a visit.  Upon the wall we see a portrait of the host's sister, Lenore (Elise Golgowski).

Fans of Mr. Poe should already feel alerted.  The easter eggs will keep on coming (some not even from Poe's own works).

When I call this a secret history, let me be precise.  The play intends to tell of events unrecorded in Poe's life, revealing a supposed "truth" about the man and his entire career.  Dudley (David Caprita), the estate's sinister butler, and Montresor's attorney Catherwood (Courtney Sarah Bell) make up the rest of the cast.

All five do wonderful jobs, and frankly the performances they pull off prove to especially impressive the more I think on it. For one thing the temptation to pull out all the stops and make this a camp melodrama sits there like...well...a raven above a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door!  Director Sean Fitzgerald wisely eschewed this, in favor of playing this as a drama--taking the gothic sensibilities as simply part of the play's world rather than a joke.  Wisely, in my view, not least because so much of the story ultimately depends on secrets each character is keeping from the others, practically from the first word!

More, this doesn't "feel" at all like the gothic tales we often think on--the Draculas and Frankensteins, the Dorian Grays and Dr. Jekylls.  Such remains our stereotypes of the gothic, firmly rooted in the Old World.  But Poe was an American to his fingertips and even his tales set abroad don't "feel" European somehow.  Class, for example, simply isn't as front and center.  Our sexual conflicts, likewise, arise not from a Roman Catholic perspective but rather a history of Puritanism.  The differences can be subtle, but very real. It even shows in Gregory Crafts' set design, with a lack of the traditional Victorian flourishes and bric-a-brac.  American homes, even those of the very wealthy, tended towards less ornamentation, less flamboyance.

Apart from design choices, though, what really lingers in memory is how the story progressed and how every piece fit together.  As we slowly get hint after hint to explain the odd tension between this two old friends, why they both drink quite so much around each other, what resentments simmer under the hearty welcomes and toasts to each others' health. 

I really want to praise Courtney Sara Bell for going an extra mile, because as written her character seems little more than a placeholder with some personality.  She took it further, making an interesting and compelling person who fits into the overall tale--this eccentric story of odd people caught up in strange events.

But specifics aside, the whole cast captured with genuine feeling and truth the sense of American Gothic which Poe so embodied. The whole play, design and blocking and writing and performances, felt very much not like an Edgar Allan Poe story so much as a story taking place in the same world as one.  A tricky and very entertaining balancing act to achieve!

Nevermore plays Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm until November 5, 2016 at the Belfry Stage, upstairs at 11031 Camarillo Street (west of Lankershim), North Hollywood CA 91602.

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