Review: Red-Eye to Havre de Grace

2014-05-04 18.58.06Want to make a show like Red-Eye to Havre de Grace? You’ll need the following:

  • 1 part primary source materials (poems and letters from Edgar, newspaper accounts, remembrances from friends, period music, and translations of Poe’s work)
  • 1 part dance (mostly from the evocative and expressive dancer Alessandra L. Larson)
  • 1 part original music (sometimes dissonant; often evocative)
  • Dash of quirky humor

Mix. Serve immediately. May wilt after 45 minutes or so.

All right, all right, I’ll stop being cutesy. Edgar Allan Poe (Ean Sheehy) is falling apart by the time this show begins: broke, nervous and constantly haunted by his dead wife (Ms. Larson). For the next 90 minutes we follow him as he tries to get back to his home in New York, all the while battling against his paranoia and increasing weakness. (He accidentally ends up in Havre de Grace, Maryland, which explains the show’s title.) Throughout, dance and music is interwoven with Poe’s interactions with hoteliers and train conductors, his poetry recitations, and his wanderings around the east coast. The music is performed by the composers of the piece: Jeremy Wilhelm (an outstanding vocalist) sings, accompanied by his brother and co-composer David Wilhelm.

Great concept, and I love a good historical gem.  And parts of it are wonderful, for several reasons. First, this show has got a sense of humor, both in the text and in the staging. (For example, everyone’s always harassing Poe to recite a certain famous poem.) Second, the music is perfectly suited to the tone of the piece. And third, director Thaddeus Phillips has a fantastic eye for visuals. The highlight is a phenomenal performance and interpretation of The Raven. A bored Poe begins by rushing through the poem, then gradually succumbs to its darkness. It’s haunting and bizarre and ultimately very effective.

But I’d had enough of Red-Eye after 45 minutes or so. At that point, it starting feeling repetitive and confused to me, even though the images remained provocative and the performances (especially Mr. Sheehy as Poe) were great throughout. I guess I just became inured to the otherworldliness of the thing. If it had a little more narrative drive, I think I’d have been fine. But perhaps that isn’t what they were going for. After all, a cogent story wouldn’t be the best way to convey the nightmarishness of Poe’s last days.

So it’s ultimately not the kind of play that speaks to me. But let me briefly mention my favorite thing about this show. It happens right at the beginning. Before the curtain rises, Jeremy Wilhelm comes out and introduces himself as Steve, a park ranger from the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site. Steve gives us a brief introduction to Poe’s life and mentions a few things to look out for in the show (for example, that the set features a door that also acts as a table). It’s a hilarious and extremely clever way to begin. Best of all, Steve makes occasional reappearances throughout the show, cutting through all the weird music and eerie feel to tell us exactly what’s going on or why Poe is acting a certain way.

Whenever Steve came back, I started falling for this show again. To be honest, I think I might like it if Ranger Steve came in and explained things at every boring or confusing show I attend. Thanks, Steve!