An early version of this show lit up the Live Arts Festival in ’05 (read my review), and I couldn’t wait to see the latest manifestation of the collaboration between Thaddeus Phillips’ Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental and Wilhelm Bros. music. The production has grown up over the intervening years. It’s bigger, wider, and deeper, and just as amazing and magical.
From the start, things may not be what they seem as a U.S. Park Ranger assigned to the Poe House introduces an imagined story of E.A. Poe’s actual last train journey. Real letters that Poe wrote are sung, as are various short works. Compelling and singular music drives the tale of the train trip that remains cloaked in mystery. Supertitles over the proscenium provide names of songs, works, dates, locations, and so forth.
Light and shadow spill across the stage, framing the play, an opera really, as a manifest dream or imagined memory. The few set pieces include a suitcase, three doors, a couple of folding chairs and two serial pianos. But in Phillips’s work, set pieces and props don’t necessarily perform the functions one might logically expect. This quirky, expressionistic exploration of Poe’s deteriorating state of mind seems able to creep inside his head even as he traverses horizontal doors and crawls through windows on his train journey. Ean Sheeny, a wonderful actor, is an eerily creditable Poe.
Poe is possessed by the shade of his very young dead wife, Virginia, played by Sophie Bortolussi (a show co-creator). Her movement astonishes as she slithers over and under doors, crawls over the piano, and pours herself all over Poe, insinuating herself like smoke across his semi-lucid waking moments and haunting his dreams. Singer Jeremy Wilhelm, completes the trio of intensely focused performers. He’s the one who pulls the whole story together. The principal musician, composer, and a bit of a magician, is David Wilhelm.
The Wilhelm Brothers’ music shapes everything by sound-painting with beautiful, doomed, fatalistic colors. An interior-lighted piano is played from above and below, using both keyboard and plucked piano strings. Haunting songs and instrumental sounds combine with steam train noises to add immeasurably to the mood and enhance the ever changing stagescape and the idiosyncratic, particularized lighting. In one flashback scene Poe and a doctor friend, visiting the Philadelphia Waterworks, are silhouetted against stunning light that glows against a blue drop. An account of the visit and a childhood memory accompany the picture. This is stage art.
Multiple requests to recite The Raven dog Poe to the end. At times he reverts to autopilot, rattling through the famed poem like a fast train. At times it’s handled slowly. I think it can safely be said that no one has seen or heard The Raven performed like this before. Morbid obsession is taken to epic heights and stygian depths. Yet in a letter to Muddy, his dear aunt/mother-in-law, Poe claims, “I was never really insane, just occasionally when my heart was touched.”
A penultimate scene, set in a bar in Baltimore, presents slices of El Dorado and also Eureka, the work which Poe considered the culmination of his life, accompanied by light, color, darkness, dance —and flamenco guitar. After a few pseudo endings comes the magnificently staged actual ending.
Director, co-creator, and stage designer Thaddeus Phillips incorporates moving actors into the ever shifting spatial composition. Co-creator Wilhelm brothers’ strong and elegant score supports the whole. This is as dramatic a work of stage art as you are likely to see. You may not remember other Live Arts/Fringe shows, but this one you won’t forget. At Suzanne Roberts Theatre. Approximately 120 minutes. Philadelphia Live Arts.