|Julie Lyn Barber, Renae Stone and Ben Asaykwee usher in the haunting season.|
Undeniably a classic of American literature, Poe was the only significant author my English-major self could never admire. That jangling verse! That overheated prose! The pretentiousness of plumbing the depths of the human spirit and coming up only with the phantasms of derangement!
Innovations in the detective story and horror fiction notwithstanding, Poe always struck me as a literary talent virtually overmastered by his demons. (Now that the demons bedeviling professional football have come out into the open, it no longer seems odd that an NFL team [just defeated by the homeboys] is named after the most famous poem by this accidental Baltimorean — a wide receiver in a wholly different sense.)
"The Raven" is on hand in "Cabaret Poe," of course, recited dramatically by Renae Stone. Suspension of disbelief must occasionally be extended to Poe, whose fevered scenarios in both prose and verse test the patience while exciting the nerves.
You don't have to feel charitable toward Poe's verse in order to feel and understand its effects and be agreeably numbed by the virtuosity of his rhymes and meters. These were also on display in a deft choral-speaking arrangement of "The Bells," done by the gothically costumed and made-up (as in make-up, not invented) cast.
Asaykwee has come up with catchy. well-performed songs exploiting Poe themes, such as the second-act opener that obsesses over the horror of being buried alive. The accompanying ensemble (drums, strings and piano) is very much reliant on the alert playing of Jennifer Gates at the piano.
The stage setting varies in suitability. Elements off to the audience's right didn't balance well with the three striking coffin-shaped frames at the opposite side in which the cast stood at both ends of the show. I couldn't get a clear view of what the obelisk was doing near the south wall, for example. With its second-level ramp leading by stairway down to the stage, the area was a useful transition area and occasional sketch setting, but without much visual coherence.
"The Masque of the Red Death" was a triumph technically and dramatically. Poe's hair-raising side was well-served by this staging. But the comic possibilities of Poe's world aren't lost on Asakywee. He's a witty performer who can play an irritable romantic with the poems to women, notably "To Helen," and, with Stone, spoof the inebriation that sets up the horrifying denouement of "The Cask of Amontillado."
To make entertainment out of material like "The Tell-Tale Heart," you need to invest belief in the way revealing guilty secrets can be represented by the supernatural. Getting into the sepulcher with Poe is not for everyone. The achievement of "Cabaret Poe" is that it pays spirited homage to the authentic chills his work still arouses while leavening them with over-the-top impersonations and considerable mockery. This permits humor (nearly nonexistent in the original) to send welcome shafts of light into the gloom.