Sunday, October 7, 2018

No pondering weak and weary here: Dynamic 'Cabaret Poe' takes the stage at Phoenix Theatre

Few major American literary figures can be as oddly irritating to read as Edgar Allan Poe. The thick, morbid texture of his prose both enhances and nearly stalls the narrative drive of his tales. As for the poetry, it is sometimes hard to get past the tightly wrought jangling of meter and rhyme to be sure of the substance beneath all the spun sugar. Still, he's an institution: even his besotted demise after brief residence in Baltimore was enough, many years later, to get one of the city's sports teams named after his most famous poem.

Ben Asaykwee, fortunately, has sailed past what seem to be the treacherous shoals of Poe's literary output. His "Cabaret Poe," a Q Artistry production celebrating its 10th year with a run at the new Phoenix Theatre, allows the author's fans to indulge their passion while those less enchanted by all things Poe can enjoy the canny balance of tribute and mockery presented in the two-hour show.

Asaykwee and his muse wormed their way into Poe through "Annabel Lee," whose rivetingly staged performance as an Asaykwee solo is a highlight of "Cabaret Poe." The poem struck the multifaceted theater artist deeply more than a decade ago, and he came up with music to go with it. From there, Asaykwee has said, he found enough inspiration in Poe's fiction and poetry to result in a full-length original stage production, which he has presented annually in October for the past nine years.

With its sepulchral lighting, varied dramatically from time to time, deaths-head makeup and fussy vintage costuming for three speaking characters, plus a black-clad Shadow Dancer, "Cabaret Poe" keeps the audience's eyes riveted on the succession of scenes as much as its ears are engaged by the hypnotizing clutter of Poe's language and Asaykwee's cunningly embedded music. The staging of "Annabel Lee" makes memorable the creepy eroticism of the poem, in which the first-person narrator recalls his doomed romance with the poem's deceased subject. Poe thought the most poetical subject of all was the death of a beautiful woman.

The cast's other speaking/singing parts are named for two of those eerie beauties — Morella and Berenice — whose names are titles for dry-run efforts leading up to what Poe considered his masterpiece, "Ligeia." Asaykwee has given the male role the name of Zoilus, after a young plague victim in the prose-poem "Shadow — A Parable." Death calls the shots, as usual. But vitality outplayed it Saturday in the performances of Renae Stone, Julie Lyn Barber, and (as the wordless Shadow Dancer) Rebekah Taylor.
Ben Asaykwee's protean original makes itself at home at the Phoenix

Asaykwee weaves into the Poe-saturated verbal texture of the show the informality and cheekiness of the cabaret genre. He doesn't overload the show with larky asides and strenuous send-ups of the original stuff. "Cabaret Poe" reflects genuine belief in the seriousness of Poe's writing, even while it doesn't get dead-serious (the term is deliberately chosen) about it. The pinpoint sound design helps.

When the narrator of "The Fall of the House of Usher" talks about riding horseback up to the mysterious residence, the offstage band strikes up a loping cowboy-style tune. It takes the edge off the story's typical Poe emphasis on foreboding: "...with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit."

"Insufferable gloom" is Poe's stock in trade, of course. I was happy to see the cast strike a spoofing
A page from the "Cabaret Poe" coloring book on sale during the production run.
note at the start of the second act with an extended riff on "The Premature Burial." This story opens with an excessive underlining of its theme. There is so much throat-clearing on the horrors of being buried alive that you wonder if there's any point in telling a story about it.

This gets at one of the things that's regularly wearying about Poe: He tells you so elaborately what you are supposed to feel about the scenario that you can feel stifled and closed in.  It's like — well, like being buried alive, or being walled in, or having a knife-edged pendulum closing in on you. Those comparisons aren't idly chosen, as Poe readers will know.

"Cabaret Poe" shows us that such flaws on the page open up all sorts of dark glory when staged with imagination and verve. Asaykwee's cabaret songs are both woebegone and manic as the occasion warrants. Spoken and musical segments flow nicely, with the cast moving deftly and adjusting props from one episode to the next. They make this unsettling oddball author seem like a master entertainer. Whatever credit Poe himself deserves for creating enduring literary entertainments, Asaykwee raises them to the next level, in which theatrical heightening and panache lend them new poise, zest, and balance.