NEVERMORE! EDGAR ALLAN POE, THE FINAL MYSTERY
By Julian Wiles
Based on the Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe
Director/Choreographer/Costume Designer – Adam Adolfo
Co-Choreographer / Aerial Choreography – Nathan Scott
Vocal Coach – Kristen Spires
Lighting Designer – Scott Davis
Sound Design – Danica Bergeron
Stage Manager – Beatriz Alvarado
Edgar Allan Poe – Magdiel Carmona
Annabelle Lee – Kristi Smith Johnson
The Raven – Nathan Scott
The Raven’s Voice – Emma Leigh Montes
Jeremiah Reynolds – Jakeb Lowery
Captain Nimrod – Joshua Sherman
Reviewed Performance: 1/23/2016
Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
One of the prized books in my library is a thick book called, Edgar Allan Poe: Complete Tales & Poems. As a young lad being introduced to American literature in the 50s, Poe sparked an interest. Most authors were boring, but Poe wrote stories with a vivid imagination and enveloped them in atmospheric descriptions a young mind could imagine. Decades later, The Alan Parsons Project recorded an obscure, but interesting album called, Tales of Mystery and Imagination. This music put the atmospheric descriptions of Poe’s stories to music. In the language of Adolfo and crew, it’s an EMO thing, though my own experience was before EMO was a thing. Regardless, it’s a dark emotional connection and seems to come best through a musical filter.
Poe was, in his day, wildly popular and famous, yet he was destitute, earning very little for his work. He was shrouded in mystery, but never more than in his final days. Nevermore! Edgar Allan Poe, The Final Mystery imaginatively addresses those days. Written by Julian Wiles, this piece combines stories and verse from Poe’s works to provide an imaginative narrative of the final sea voyage and raise questions about his popular, but macabre life. Nevermore! opened at Runway Theatre in Grapevine this week and it’s well worth an evening to explore.
Nevermore! was directed by Adam Adolfo, Artistic Director of Artes de la Rosa. In numerous shows at the Rose Marine Theater, Adolfo has shown a great vision for his productions and innovation in how to present stories that cross cultural lines. He’s found inspiration in getting designers to co-create his vision. This was the case at Runway Theatre. Adolfo’s use of stage design and aerial silks is well-known, but he also has a penchant for combining story with music and dance in unusual ways.
The Runway stage was bare, save for a half-dozen tall, sheer, white silk panels hanging from lights above the stage down to the floor. At center, two hanging silks were configured for aerial acrobatics. The geographic placement of the hanging silks provided a palette for a range of evocative color and spotlight schemes designed by Scott Davis. At times we saw numerous bright spotlights from above the stage and above the audience which shot shafts of light through the air to bounce across the stage. It seemed you could reach up and grab beams of light from the audience. At another time a bright light shone from behind, lighting up the silks like reflectors of sunlight. Adolfo chose an overall black and white color scheme to frame this story’s very UN-BLACK-AND-WHITE themes, reinforced though the white silks against black stage and walls. The color theme projected though Adolfo’s costume choices, as well as Davis’ lighting. The occasional insertion of subtle colors like violets and pale blues, added lush color to the silks that exploded off the palette to suggest different meanings in the scenes.
Against the pure white backgrounds of the silks, Adolfo had most actors wearing clothing of black or dark colors. Costumes had a gothic feel, which explained some of the color patterns, but gothic may have been closer to a norm in Poe’s 1840s world. There were several characters who used costumes as complex as coat and tails or as simple as sheer floor-length gowns. These gowns created a gossamer look of red or blue, violet, or pumpkin against the stark black and white palette. It was a costume smorgasbord and these choices really kept the characters visually exciting.
Nevermore! was more musical than play, perhaps rock opera. The script included recitations of Poe’s poems or scenic glimpses into his short stories, interspersed with dialog, but Adolfo chose to place this story within a musical framework inspired by Panic! At the Disco. Panic! songs were sung by the Voice of the Raven and ensemble. There was not a music director, but Kristen Spires was listed as Vocal Coach. Most of the songs were solos by Emma Leigh Montes, the Voice of the Raven. Her ballsy rock voice was loud and strong enough to get the lyrics out powerfully, while the ensemble provided backup and harmonies. It’s hard to tell how the “inspiration” created by the Panic! songs such as Nicotine, The Ballad of Mona Lisa, and The End of All Things, informed the tone of the scenes or morphed with the recitations of poetry, but it was evoking of deep emotion and propelled the story.
During these songs, Nathan Scott, who silently played The Raven, danced with an eclectic mix of modern dance and ballet. At times he performed in-the-silks and was as graceful and visually stunning as he was on the floor. At other times the ensemble joined in group dances, including a ballroom dance. Adolfo got credit for choreography, along with Scott, who created his dance as aerial choreographer and choreographed others as they worked in the silks with equal beauty.
Sound effects played throughout this show, as much of the story was on a ship. Danica Bergeron, as Sound Designer, included effects like birds, ocean waves, ship sounds, and storms. One of these was, I think, the squawk of a crow, perhaps The Raven, but it sounded more like a really loud sound system noise. It was startling and irritating. The other effects seemed to be nicely back in the sound track, so as to be almost felt and not prominent enough to identify; however, there were a few times when sea sounds got louder than dialog and it was hard to understand some words.
Nevermore! was the story of Poe’s journey in the last days of his life, a journey filled with mystery to this day. In this version of the tale, the known, and a few imagined, events were woven into a classic tale of good versus evil, The Devil, or Lucifer as he prefers, versus Poe. Time and reality shifted frequently to show us at one moment Captain Nimrod, of Poe’s final voyage, and Lucifer in the next. Played with a mix of malevolent evil on one hand and a desperate captain braving the storms, Joshua Sherman had an air of confidence about him in both, even when he also played the father of Annabelle Lee, Poe’s beloved. Sherman could pierce the soul with some of his looks, but could then show compassion, frustration, and anguish with others. His language changed from Southern Gentleman, as Annabelle’s father, to an East Coast seafaring sailor the next, and then to an almost sub-audible growl as Lucifer that controlled nature itself. One moment of physicality, of many he used, caught my eye. It was a subtle hand gesture beating out the pulse of a beating heart during one song, no doubt helping us feel the Tell-Tale Heart.
Edgar Allan Poe was played by Magdiel Carmona with a complex mixture of real and unreal characterizations, sometimes in command and normal, others in a spiraling frenzy of confusion and delirium. Carmona made Poe a person possessed trying to explain or endure the “dreams,” or were they visitations, that afflicted Poe during the voyage. While Poe has a historical reputation as a man possessed, in life he had much more lucidity. He was famous and able to write stories, poems and critical essays with great logic and planning. Yet the macabre reputation may have taken its toll. Nevermore! suggests his end came amidst great turmoil as he fought with the devil. Carmona created this tortured soul which could show a man, who might have sold his soul in order to write, going through hell. Poe was smitten, and then obsessed with, Annabelle Lee, who died before he could really know her. Throughout this tale, her appearances caused Poe agony, and Carmona showed this constant push/pull with Annabelle in his great emotional highs and deep lows.
Annabelle Lee was played by Kristi Smith Johnson. A blond, innocent young girl, always dressed in colors, Johnson played Annabelle for the angel she was, fighting against forces of evil to help Poe escape his fate. Johnson’s voice even had an angelic quality, a tone of sweetness that allowed us to mourn her sudden death and pull for her struggle with The Devil.
Throughout the play the great representation of mystery, perhaps of evil itself, was The Raven. The black-clad, black-eyed Nathan Scott never spoke, but constantly moved in undulating waves of dance and movement, at times like a Tai Chi master, at others like a ballet dancer. He hovered around Carmona’s Poe at all times, sometimes peering through a sheer silk panel, doing gymnastics up in the silks, always to the beat of some inner music that might be the songs of Panic! or might be something otherworldly. The Raven’s Voice, spoken by the previously mentioned Emma Leigh Montes, was the lead singer of all the songs. Montes had a strong singing and speaking voice. Her role was to sing the emotional songs that told of Poe’s struggles, and sometimes to mirror the movements of The Raven. In truth, these two powerful actors were two sides of the same character, The Raven.
Jakeb Lowery played Jeremiah Reynolds, an Antarctic explorer who befriended Poe. It was Jeremiah who got Poe to take the voyage home, and in doing so, got Poe into the fight of his life with the crew of the ship, and the self-same Captain Nimrod, or Lucifer. He had a powerful motivation for shaping Poe’s actions. Lowery played this dualist role of closest friend and ally and mysterious puppet master with a touch of guilt along with a personal drive to survive. We saw him act like a companion and helper when Jeremiah was influencing Poe, but then change to obstinate pusher as Jeremiah began to lose his influence.
The Raven Ensemble was a multi-purpose group that played many small parts in the story, momentary characters on Poe’s journey, such as a ship’s crew, The Devil’s hordes, even idol worshipers of Poe or crowds around his death. Each performed their roles, some lasting only a few seconds, strongly with great precision and perfect timing, each allowing their characters to fill a critical hole in the story. These actors also provided musical background to Montes’ vocals and created some really luscious harmonies, like momentary splashes of color against the otherwise black and white music of Panic! Often we saw these character voicing their poetry or comments through the silk panels. At other times they acted in scenes directly with Carmona’s Poe. This tale could not have been told without these actors. They provided another layer of color to Adolfo’s vision.
Nevermore! Edgar Allan Poe, the Final Mystery is a story filled with emotional overtones based on “…emo punk band Panic! at the Disco’s front man Brendon Urie.” Adolfo envisioned Poe as the “Original Emo Kid.” The visual and aural atmospherics were so strong you may not get the full outcome of the story of Poe’s last journey and mysterious death at first, but you will live for a while in his tumultuous state of mind. And, in the end, perhaps the story isn’t really about Poe at all. It could be about dreams, Poe’s and ours, about how lives unfold, and a lesson that, despite meanings the world may attach to our own lives, it’s up to us to “make our own tree of life.”
You will no doubt see here how hard it is to describe Nevermore! as a play. It’s almost entirely indescribable. The only course of action is to go see it for yourself and find your own inner Emo.
NEVERMORE! EDGAR ALLAN POE, THE FINAL MYSTERY Runway Theatre
215 N. Dooley Street, Grapevine, Texas 76051
Plays through February 7th
Friday and Saturday at 8:00pm; Sunday Matinee at 3:00pm. Tickets are $17-$20. For information and tickets, visit http://www.runwaytheatre.com or call 817-488-4842.