The Wren’s Nest, the house where Br’er Rabbit grew up, whistling “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” is a cheerful place. In the daytime.
It was the home of Atlanta newspaperman Joel Chandler Harris, and the 140-year-old Queen Anne-style/Victorian structure is forever associated with the comic characters that Harris based on African American folktales.
But at night West End’s ancient structure, with its dark wood and hooded windows, can take on a different spirit.
“I visited it at night,” said theatrical producer Brian Clowdus. “I spent some time in there, and thought, God, this is perfect. It is so perfect for something creepy. The set is here. All we need is a little bit of lighting and some music cues and we are ready to go.”
In short order Clowdus, best known for staging outdoor theatrical events at Serenbe, created last year’s spooky indoor happening called “The Edgar Allan Poe Experience.” The immersive show has returned this year for the Halloween season, with a mostly new cast. That cast includes Michael Fortino as the very troubled Poe, who, near the end of his life, has checked himself into the Wren’s Nest Asylum for treatment.
During an interview on the morning after the show opened, Fortino apologized for being a little hoarse, explaining “I did a lot of screaming last night.”
The asylum is a raucous place. The audience is welcomed, by a roaring Robert Hindsman, as if they are new patients. As they wander from room to room, they encounter stylized enactments of Poe’s famous stories, including “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Tell-tale Heart,” “The Masque of the Red Death” and the poem “The Raven.” Sometimes a puzzled audience member becomes part of the action.
Poe’s tales continue to attract new fans. “I read ‘The Tell-tale Heart’ and I knew I had to read the rest,” said Courtney Hand, 16, who waited on the porch for the front door to open, and attended with her mother, Christina Kahler. “I talked her into bringing me,” said the Buford teenager, who came dressed for the occasion, wearing a Blackcraft T-shirt featuring Poe’s familiar woeful face.
While serving as a haunted asylum at night, the Wren’s Nest continues operating as a house museum in the daytime, so bringing in props or sets was inconvenient. Fortino said he requested that, during the run of the show, the docents remove a few priceless items, to keep the actors and the audiences from inadvertently breaking something that might be irreplaceable.
It was probably a wise precaution. The show has some physical moments. At one point Fortino and Imani Joseph, as the Raven, engage in an athletic pas de deux, leaping from furniture, bouncing off a bed, all within inches of the audience.
“We don’t bring anything into the house that isn’t already there,” said Clowdus. “That is always my goal with site specific work.” There are smoke effects and some subtle lighting — including an LED spot hidden in a fireplace — but much of the atmosphere is built-in.
That’s because the audience is wandering through a bona-fide 19th century house, full of the furnishing, dishes, artwork and books that belonged to Harris.
Among those books is an illustrated edition of “The Raven.”
Atlanta writer Jim Auchmutey, a member of the board of directors of the house museum, said the staff is glad that Harris was a fan of “The Raven,” “because it reassures us that (Harris) might not be mad at us for turning his home over to Poe and huddles of strangers, interested in a Halloween atmosphere.”
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