The circumstances surrounding the death of Edgar Allan Poe are so grim and mysterious that they seem, well, like something straight out of a tale by Edgar Allan Poe. An innovative new musical coming to Georgia Tech’s Ferst Center this week dramatizes the strange end of Poe’s life.
“It’s a mystery,” director and co-creator Thaddeus Phillips says of the show “Red-Eye to Havre de Grace.” “He kept disappearing a few months before he died. He’d go on a literary tour and would get lost. There are accounts and letters — all kinds of weird information and tidbits, these wild, crazy stories. We staged some of those accounts, and we weave them together into a narrative that creates an atmosphere and dramatic feeling.”
Poe, the author of “The Raven” and famous macabre tales such as “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat,” died on Oct. 7, 1849, at the age of 40. Ten days before he died, he’d left Richmond, Va., on a train headed to his home in New York City, but a week later, he was found delirious on the streets of Baltimore. He was taken to Baltimore’s Washington College Hospital, where he died. One intriguing eyewitness account of Poe during those final days of his life comes from a conductor who found Poe with a ticket for New York inexplicably headed in the wrong direction on a southbound train not far from Havre de Grace, Md. (hence the show’s title).
The show includes a piano-based score from Minneapolis composing duo Jeremy and David Wilhelm of the Wilhelm Bros. and Co. Many of the lyrics for the songs are from Poe’s own words, either from poems or from letters. “When you take a song from a letter, it makes for bizarre rhythmic line construction,” Phillips says. “It doesn’t rhyme, but he writes such great letters, the music drives the piece.” The pared-down production uses a small cast and a few simple staging elements and props, two altered pianos, a bed, a door and a patch of grass, to tell the story of Poe’s last days. Actor Ean Sheehy performs as Poe, and actress and dancer Sophie Bortolussi performs as Virginia, Poe’s deceased wife who appears to him as a ghost in the play.
The hour-and-a-half show had its world premiere at the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival in 2012, and it has subsequently been presented in Boston and New York. Critic Charles Isherwood of The New York Times wrote about the show: “At times funny, at times heartbreaking, and from quirky start to haunting finish a feast of entrancing visual allurements, this exquisite show is among the most original musical theater works I’ve seen in years.”
Phillips says it wasn’t just Poe’s strange death that fascinated him and his Philadelphia-based company, Lucidity Suitcase International, in creating the show; they were interested in presenting a more complicated picture of the writer than the one most people have. The performance includes words from Poe’s lesser-known last work, a speculative scientific essay titled “Eureka” in which the author attempted to explain the origins and eventual collapse of the universe. “Our interest is in breaking the cliches that everyone has about Poe, even though they’re cliches that in some ways, he set up for himself,” Phillips says. “He wrote ‘The Raven’ to make money, and then he could never get away from it. It’s kind of like a trap he made for himself, and we play with that a lot in the show.”
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