Once upon a midnight dreary there came a production that spoke quite clearly of a haunted poet whose tale is known forever more; the madness of a man quite clearly haunted by his ending nearly, approaching rapidly the ghost of death a knocking at his chamber door. CENTERSTAGE presents most dearly as their 50th Anniversary season progresses here, an offering of Baltimore’s beloved macabre poet and his bizarre end with Stephen Thorne’s The Completely Fictional — Utterly True — Final Strange Tale of Edgar Allan Poe. Directed by Curt Columbus, this wildly riveting ride takes you through the tumultuous ups and downs of the famed poet’s final moments; traversing the dark delusions as he tumbles from the brink of sanity into the drastic depths of the surreally unknown.
Scenic Designer Eugene Lee provides a haunting atmosphere for the stage which is set in the round. Chandeliers strung from the ceiling and concealed by muslin drapes with wide sweeping curtains around the house create a ghostly environment, augmenting the spooky effects of the players that drift in and out of the space and Poe’s reality as the show progresses. Otherwise using a minimalist design, Lee succeeds in properly executing an eerie ambiance without crafting clichés into his work.
The madness woven into the text of this production may not be an infection but it spreads like one. Galloping levels of insanity floats abound between Poe and his delusional incarnations of the characters of his past. Recollecting such fever dreams as his mother and his younger self; the text is both frighteningly realistic and bizarrely unbelievable, creating a complex series of scenes that are truly maddening to behold. Director Curt Columbus does a flawless job of incorporating the more macabre aspects of Poe’s insanity into the subtle scene shifts; relying on well-placed entrances and exits of characters floating about at precise moments to appear as shades or shadows; wisps of wraiths that may exist only in the delirium of Poe’s fragile mind.
The intensity with which these haunted hallucinations occur is downright petrifying. Moments of utter unnerving truths blast into reality, creating by powerful acting and the haunting contrast of actors in darkness and sudden blinks of light. There is never a dull moment throughout the performance and each of the characters fall into their own series of unfortunate sorrows; making the overall events of the show that much more dramatic and profound.
Valdemar (Libya Pugh) shares the sickness of the mind that Poe masters, letting her inward manifestations of the otherworldly phenomenon possess her character in such a way that she is almost a female double of Poe. Pugh masters a robust French accent and slinks about the stage with a scientific prowess that makes her slightly villainous. Doubling up as one of the more doting nurse nuns at the hospital, Pugh rivals her minor performance with the title characters in intensity and ferocity.
Adding to the insanity comes the conversation with Charles Dickens (Jimmy Kieffer). Playing the aloof historical writer Kieffer creates a slight instance of comic relief, his presences echoing strongly despite the humor. When he switches roles to the formidable John Allan his presence is terrifying; a dark and foreboding man easily putting Poe in his place. Another stunning performance in this cast of extremely talented actors.
The most stunning moment in this show comes between the duality of Poe (Bruce Randolph Nelson) being forced to face off with his younger self; Young Edgar (Charlie Thurston). Not only is the physical resemblance striking and shocking to behold but the mannerisms in which Thurston moves about the stage mimic Poe’s with such a spry fluidity that it is beyond haunting to see them arguing with one another. Heated debate ensue as Thurston plays the blame game with Nelson, flipping through memories and shadows of the past with frightening tenacity.
Thurston and Nelson share an all encompassing scene of love loss and tragedy with their shared wife, Virginia (Caroline Kaplan). The moment is too precious to give away especially with how quickly it turns from brilliance to true darkness, but it is Kaplan’s finest hour upon the stage; stealing the attention away from her dueling husbands with a force as strong as the stormy night’s thunder.
Nelson as the title character is unflappable. Stalwart in his convictions that he is neither going mad nor dying, he derives a passionate justice to the poet’s character. The fever of blood has overcome him; coursing through his veins with a tenacity that shocks the audience to the core. Nevermore a performance so genius and so brilliant than the epic absurdity portrayed by Nelson in this role. A stunningly expressive man, extrapolating the darkest details of Poe’s inner sanctum for all to understand; a show not to be missed. Be sure to see it before it flies away.
Running Time: two hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission.
The Completely Fictional— Utterly True— Final Strange Tale of Edgar Allan Poe plays through November 25, 2012 at CENTERSTAGE – 700 N. Calvert Street in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office (410) 332-0033, or purchase them online.