A brilliant performace is wasted on a stagnant script
Published: October 29, 2012
The Completely Fictional—Utterly True—Final Strange Tale Of Edgar Allan Poe
Written by Stephen Thorne
Directed by Curt Columbus
Through Nov. 25 at Center Stage
As you’re waiting for The Completely Fictional—Utterly True—Final Strange Tale of Edgar Allan Poe to begin at Center Stage’s second-floor theater, you may flip through your program and chance upon the bio of playwright Stephen Thorne. Having learned that he is primarily an actor, you may groan, as I did to the woman on my left, “Oh, no! This is going to be one of those actor-written shows with great scenes for performers but no thematic unity or narrative coherence.” And, unfortunately, you would be right.
The advance publicity stoked expectations for this production. Baltimore’s most famous writer would be portrayed by Baltimore’s finest actor, Bruce Randolph Nelson. But the play turns out to be such a trifle that it does justice to neither Poe nor Nelson. As might be expected, Thorne’s script provides some showy scenes for the actors—and Nelson as well as Charlie Thurston and Caroline Kaplan take full advantage of them—but those scenes are so disconnected from the other scenes that the show never gathers any momentum.
The play begins with mumbles and lanterns coming through the white sheets that wrap around the theater space, Christo-style. Before long Poe, with his dark mustache and unruly mop of dark hair, is standing on his bed at Baltimore’s Washington University Hospital on Oct. 7, 1849, declaiming about life as a kind of theater. Three nurses in blue-gray nun habits and two doctors in white coats rush into the room to calm him down. Once again the physicians ask the writer where he had been the week before he landed at the hospital, on death’s doorstep, but that week is as much a mystery to Poe as it would be to his countless biographers.
Poe, who set so many of his poems and stories in the no man’s land between life and death, between sanity and madness, seems to have taken up permanent residence in that zone. As he stares at one nurse, she sheds her habit and becomes Madame Valdemar (Libya Pugh), a gender-switched character from his short story “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.” Simultaneously, Poe sheds his white hospital gown and dons a stylish black jacket and finds himself at a New York City salon some years earlier, flirting with Valdemar, a hypnotist assisting a physician.
As their friendship blossoms, Valdemar eventually shares her darkest secret with Poe: She hypnotized a patient as he was dying and, eight months after his death, the seemingly dead body has neither decomposed nor reawakened. This sets up director Curt Columbus’ most spectacular scene—one involving a living corpse and a fountain of bodily fluids. After a desultory beginning, the show has finally grabbed the audience’s attention. But what to do with that grasp?
Alas, neither Columbus nor Thorne can answer that question. There are connections to be made between Poe as creator of the scene and Poe as surprised witness to it, or between Poe and the stranger, who are both living corpses; but neither the playwright nor the director make those connections in anything but a perfunctory manner. It’s as if Thorne—an actor trained to always “be in the moment”—is incapable of stepping outside each moment to see how it might fit together with the others in a pattern.
There are other stirring moments in the show: the deaths of Poe’s mother, Eliza (Naomi Jacobson), and his cousin/wife, Virginia (Caroline Kaplan); an argument about writing between Poe and Charles Dickens (Jimmy Kieffer); and an extended argument between the dying Poe and his younger self (Charlie Thurston), who is to blame for the writer’s failures. But they are all actors’ scenes—chances for the performers to show off their chops. They never become playwrights’ scenes—stepping stones that might lead the audience from point A to point B. Columbus doesn’t help matters by giving Valdemar, Dickens, and the salon’s young blonde (Kaplan) cartoonish accents and loading up the production with campy, horror-film sound effects.
Nelson, of course, is terrific as Poe. Even his appearance—a dashing haircut, stylish jacket, and expensive cravat that are never quite in place—suggests a man trying to maintain control and not quite succeeding. The actor manages to suggest a man who defies death on one level but who is terrified on another. It’s not easy to convey such contradictory emotions, but Nelson allows just enough cracks in his brave façade to offer glimpses of the coward within.
It’s all for naught, however, as the show drags on and on, long after the audience has abandoned hope that there might be any purpose to it all. There are one, two, three, four false endings, and one begins to feel like Valdemar’s hypnotized patient, who croaks, please, please, please, just let it end.
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