What they say it is:
On September 27, 1849, Edgar Allan Poe set out on a lecture tour from Virginia to New York. Days later a train conductor saw Poe in Havre de Grace, Maryland, wearing a stranger’s clothing and heading south to Baltimore where he died on October 7. Innovative stage director Thaddeus Phillips teams up with the Minneapolis-based musical duo Wilhelm Bros. & Co. to create an action-opera that follows the odd details surrounding Poe’s mysterious last days. Informed by 19th century train routes, historical accounts, and Poe’s letters to his mother-in-law Muddy, RED-EYE to HAVRE de GRACE comments on the nature of being an artist in America and casts Poe in a new light by exploring his writings on the gold rush, fools, furniture, and the universe.
This visually striking production exploits the full capabilities of a traditional fly-house proscenium theater by experimenting with curtains, borders, trap doors, mirrors, slight-of-hand, and illusions. Poe’s letters and selected writings become song lyrics and the live musical scoring uses prepared and bowed pianos, clarinet, bassoon, harmonica, and flamenco guitar. Simple set pieces—door, table, bed frame—transform into trains, hotel rooms, bars, hospitals, lecture halls, and even the Philadelphia Waterworks. And through it all, Virginia, Poe’s deceased wife (and cousin), haunts Poe with her silent yet stunning movement.
I could go on for pages describing my hyper-positive feelings toward this particular work; suffice it to say, it will long be remembered as one of my favorite experiences at the Philadelphia Live Arts/Fringe festival. Perhaps I have a tendency to enjoy art that veers toward the dark and eccentric; I’d never deny a preference for the ‘avant-garde’, though these days (and in this city) it’s sometimes tough to know exactly what that term might imply. Regardless of my biases–I absolutely LOVED this show.
I mean, sure, of course I’m interested in Poe (ahem, two degrees in literature, I better damn well be), and in spite of a somewhat ambiguous description, my curiosity was provoked after browsing the festival brochure (see above, “What They Say It Is”). Heading into the performance, I was ignorant to the fact that at least half the work was staged as a musical, but I don’t think such foreknowledge would have changed my anticipation one bit (Johny Depp’s Sweeny Todd is a fair comparison to Red-Eye, and remains one of my all-time favorites).
Throughout the all-too-short 90 minute presentation of Red-Eye, I was–to use a cliche-yet-accurate term–transported by the show’s power, force and aesthetic tone. . . from the opening moments (a faux Philadelphia Poe-house park-ranger welcomes us to the theater, stumbles through his cues, and then blows our collective mind as the curtain rolls up and he belts out the show’s first number)…to the final moments when the last lights wink out, Poe dead in hospital . . . I was completely overwhelmed with everything about this performance. The smallest details were rendered in top-shelf quality, while the crucial moments were nothing short of epic; Poe and his ghostly wife perform ballet-esque acrobatics in seeming nonchalant style. . . the poet’s face is captured in deep shadow, grappling with mortality and fear, staring into a flickering, humming lightbulb . . . Poe is forced to perform The Raven for the millionth time (at breakneck speed) and the audience is swept into the author’s own psyche as the entire stage reverses perspective . . . we, the audience, are now within Poe’s mind, watching from within as Poe faces down his most tiresome enemy–audience worship of a single work that stands to drown out the quality of his other achievements.
Am I making sense here? Am I conveying anything of worth? The tone was dark and tragic. . . the shadows were long and the stage lighting was mesmerizing. The set design (and it’s amazing it has taken this far into the review for me to mention what may have been the play’s most obvious strength) was of a creative caliber I can only marvel at. Objects rearrange their layout and purpose (doors become tables, beds becoming flying platforms, pianos move while being played, and grass carpets become trapdoor portals to–and from–the grave).
The actors were minimalist and incredible, simultaneously evoking 19th century players, a tragic poet caught in a frivolous world, and even some lighter moments of vaudeville-flavored goofs. The entire cast was a mere 4 actors, yet their roles never felt limited or constrained . . . in fact, quite the opposite. One fellow spent the entirety of the play at the piano or offstage, delivering amazing sound effects and ambiance to every scene, the narrator-figure (aka the park ranger, also standing for other small roles) doubled as a vocalist (with some serious bass pipes), second pianist, and a haunting clarinetist . . . the ghost of Poe’s wife was acrobatic and graceful, truly possessing the stage in leaps and creeps of spectral motion . . .and Poe himself was beyond excellent, inhabiting the gaunt weirdness of a man closing in on madness, a man of letters who’d lost his bearing on (what the rest of us call) reality, a tortured soul who mourns a beloved wife while feeding his artistic impulse from that same suffering.
I’m just running on and on here. . . it was good. Really good. Leaving the theater, I could barely speak for an hour or so. Does that make my point clearly?
First- shame on you clay- the only Sweeny Todd we reference on this art blog is the theatrically filmed version featuring Angela Lansbury. (I am so not be sarcastic here reader. Really, go check out the Netflix/library/youtube Angela Lansbury version – vastly SUPERIOR….I still love you Tim Burton and Johnny Depp… but you just can’t hold a candle to Ms Murder She Wrote…..)
Second- Clay, I totally agree that if you enjoyed THE CORRECT version of Sweeny Todd, it is a good introductory comparrsion to Red Eye.
Clay has described our awe at this performance. While Clay couldn’t speak following the final fall of the curtain, I myself was frothing with anger! I am forced to HOPE that the audience failed to join us in a standing ovation because they were so stunded by the performance they lost the use of their legs.
Red Eye is Broadway material. Every movement, lighting change, set prop is economical and served to intensify the experience.
A favorite scene for me was when Poe was checked into his Philadelphia hotel. The bellman and poet climbed into the ingeniously-designed “room” by walking up a tilted table, then entered the “room” (formed by quick set change by moving two tables together). As the poet settled in to his spartan accommodation, the ghost of his wife caused a door in the floor to beat like a heart (see The Telltale Heart). Poe naturally becomes agitated and his wife writhes under the floor boards until the poet is sucked down by the ghost and trapped beneath the “floor” with the ghost.
Another highlight for me with the reprise of El Dorado that featured the lead actress performing on stilts. In a blood red chiffon gown- and raised up on stilts- she dances and seduces Poe, a seductive and incredibly dangerous show of female power
It is worth wrapping up my review by noting that the female character had absolutely no spoken lines throughout the entire show, yet she was easily able to deliver a stand out of the performance.