For anyone who has earned an undergraduate degree in theater over the past four decades, mention of A.C.T.F. (the American College Theater Festival) will jog memories of road trips to far-off campuses, late-night binge drinking, and the kind of overwrought, dramatic interpretation of source material that 20-year-olds find artistic but the rest of us probably view as… well…. exhausting.
Jonathan Christenson’s musical play in verse, Nevermore: the Imaginary Life and Death of Edgar Allan Poe, was a throwback for me to such a time. It was as if some devilish theater spirit had grabbed me by the nape of my neck and plunged my head into a bucket of icy memories of forced choreography, purposeful stares beyond the fourth wall and undulating vocal patterns.
Nevermore is the genesis of Catalyst Theatre, the Canadian-based theater company, whose mission is to “integrate music, striking visual imagery, poetic text and an often darkly comic sensibility.” I will concede that the production valiantly fulfills those initiatives, but where the production crumbles is its utter lack of truthful emotional resonance.
Poe’s life is ripe for dramatic interpretation. His parents were traveling actors who died when he was just a child. His life would be riddled with death, eventually losing his brother, foster mother and wife to tuberculosis. This sense of loss rippled through his work as he struggled with addictions to gambling and alcohol. Just prior to his death, Poe disappeared for five days en route to Philadelphia. He was found in the bar room of a public house in Baltimore and taken to Washington College Hospital where he died at the age of 40.
Nevermore—essentially a memory play—weaves the tale of Poe’s life through a troupe of players that he encounters on the train. Sliding panels bisecting the width of the proscenium create two narrow playing areas in which the actors constantly appear trapped on the same plane. The literal lack of depth is a constant reminder of the piece itself, which rarely moves beyond its owned forced style. Production designer Bretta Gerecke gives the seven-member ensemble plenty to play with, costuming them in exaggerated 19th century silhouettes as well as fantastical masks and puppetry elements. Unfortunately, the visual stimulation isn’t enough to retain an emotional connection to the material.
Christenson, in addition to writing and composing Nevermore, also directs with the help (or harm) of choreographer Laura Krewski. Nearly every step, twist and turn is a belabored effort, often clunking to the click-track score that lends another saccharine tone to the evening’s proceedings. What is perhaps most frustrating about Nevermore—much like Poe himself—is the missed potential. While Poe penned classics such as “The Raven” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” and made a living as a literary critic, had he been able to harness his creativity and keep his mind’s demons at bay, who knows what else he may have accomplished? For Christenson and the creative team, so much emphasis has been placed on the tone of the piece, that the very reason why we go to the theater has been lost. The sum of the parts leaves an empty shell—one that is yearning for Poe’s heart-throbbing prose.
New World Stages
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