Posted by: strugglesome | September 10, 2012

Good Morning Baltimore: Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental’s Red Eye to Havre de Grace

If American Literature was a high school, and who are we to say it isn’t, Edgar Allen Poe would have been deemed “mostly unlikely to succeed” by his graduating class. In a generation of great American writers who were, on a very real level, defining what a literary understanding of United States would be, both to itself and the world, literally creating a written legacy that would define this nation through to the modern age, Poe was writing creepy stories about depressed and troubled people who, by and large, met horrible ends. Oh, yeah, and there’s that whole thing about the bird. A magpie, was it? A crow? Who can ever remember such things….

But Poe, for all of his depressive tendencies, addictions and macabre leanings, intrigues us, because, of course, he was so deeply troubled that we are fascinating to know what was going on in the head of the man who envisioned a heart beating beneath floorboards and a bird speaking English.  And more mysterious than his life, which is fairly well documented, all things considered, is his death. Poe died alone, but don’t we all, and in 1849 before his death he was found, suffering from a host of diseases including rabies, on a bench in Baltimore, wearing someone else’s clothing, miles away  from New York, the city he was supposed to be traveling towards at the end of a long lecture tour. No one knows why, no one knows how, but Poe died in a hospital in Baltimore a handful of days later, unnoticed and unsung. What was he thinking, in the last days of his life? What did he think at all, this troubled and troubling person, who lived in conflict and died in ignominy? What would the mind of this man look like, really, in its twisted and treacherous corners and impulses? And it you were to tell its stories, how would you do that, what would you say? Would it involve a gently deranged park ranger with the voice of an opera singer, a lithe dancer with a Cheshire Cat smile and a skinny depressive with a  Hitler Mustache? Well, for Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental, you’re damn right it would.

Beginning with a fire-speech from a sublimely hapless and happy Park Ranger (after all, we do have an Edgar Allen Poe house in Philadelphia, aren’t we lucky?) we are told the facts that are most important about our friend Eddie, i.e., he married his cousin when she was 13 (in his defense, he was raised in Virginia, so he probably felt that action was a normal one) and they lived with his aunt/mother-in-law who he affectionately called “muddy”. Virgina Poe died at the age of 23 from consumption, a disease we have now cured completely, thus robbing the world of romance, but most Poe scholars (and people who like to read) agree that Virginia haunted Poe’s life and work, driving him to drink heavily (not that he needed to be driven) and write frail but haunting female figures. All this our helpful guide (David Wilhelm) cheerfully informs us, before stepping back and letting us watch Poe (Ean Sheeny) wrestle with himself, his dead wife (Sophie Bortolussi) and his piano player (Jeremy Wilhelm) who plays him into eternity with stunning skill.

And so we witness Poe’s last great lecture tour, in fact, his last anything, the final days of E. A. Poe. Sheeny’s Poe is frail, thin to the point of skeletal, and feverish, constantly alert, and completely a mess. As well, frankly, he should be. His wide eyes and constant frown give us a Poe who is wry, sad, sick of his most popular poem (The Raven, of course, for which he was paid 9 dollars because honestly art is many things but profit isn’t among them), and exhausted, all the time. Arrogant and dictatorial, yes, but mostly weary, of his ever-present suitcase, of his greasy black suit, of lectures and venues and the constant ghosts of his past.

And so the show takes its lead from Poe in structure; its depicting the mind of a madman and so it is mad, disjointed and wild, feverish and frantic, because its giving it’s audience an insight into the world of its protagonist (or antagonist, can Poe ever really be a hero?) and it must take on the characteristics of the source material.  In some ways this is confusing, disorienting and overwhelming, but ultimately it’s mesmerizing, luscious and saturated with detail and soaked with the scenic elements that characterize all of Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental’s work, shrinking the enormous Suzanne Roberts Theater stage into a dark, cramped, claustrophobic space littered with hallways and train cars and little places. Of course it’s inherently clever, we would expect no less from Thaddeus Phillips, who both directed and designed the production, and it’s incredibly efficient; each element is used until its logical end. Sheeny is wonderful, both Wilhelms are magnificent, but there is something so sublime about a cheerful and helpful national park guide preaching to an audience about this horribly troubled human being; it’s fantastic. And Borolussi is a wonderful Virginia, childlike, as of course she must have been, and filled with devious mischief which is both adorable and scary. She climbs up and down Sheeny’s body, as a spider on a tree limb, sometimes as awkward as a reanimated corpse would be, and sometimes as graceful as a swan.

Elegant and beautiful as it is, it is also a bit too long, which sadly diffuses the impact of the story and robs the players of the full praise they are due. On one level its a thrill to learn this much and travel this deeply into the mind of the first American writer to make his mark on the genre of science fiction and horror. On another level, it does lose it’s audience somewhere in the middle, and no amount of smiling park rangers and glorious choreography (also Bortolussi) can make that up for us. And despite the excellent lighting by  Drew Billeiau and the fantastic costumes by Rosemary McKelevy, it can’t quite pull us back, despite the stunning ending and it’s slurred and stupefying explanation of Poe’s last work, Eureka.

It this show moved just a bit quicker it would be unparalleled. As it is, it’s good, great, even, but it’s length diffuses it’s impact. Once could make an argument that that time allows the actors to settle into their relationships, building a world that ten finally immerses us in its sad and scary wonder, but the truth is, we would understand this world sooner and more easier without all the white noise. There is a tendency, when representing madness, to draw out the process, as if madness is so foreign to us that we wont understand what it looks like at first glimpse. But we are all more troubled than any of us would care to admit. And we know madness more than anyone would ever guess. We don’t need the easy coaxing. We can do horrific all on our own.

Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental’s Red Eye to Harve de Grace runs until September 22nd. Tickets are available here.

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