There are no ghosts. You know this, and so do I, so let’s stop all the nonsense. Also, there are no zombies or vampires, no matter how much we would have it otherwise; and aliens do not wish us to bear their children. In short, there is nothing scary this Halloween, or any, except things like cancer and the economy, which will not frighten us until they are hard upon us, and it is too late.
So why go to a show devoted to the work of Edgar Allen Poe, the patron saint of Halloween? To discover the source of all true horror – which is to say, ourselves. Poe’s great insight was that it was our own weaknesses and failings, our own self-destructive impulses, which are the engines behind our worst terrors. Tony Tsendeas, a veteran actor with an instinct for the macabre, brings these impulses to life at Rep Stage.
Tsendeas gives us four notable Poe pieces – “The Black Cat”, “The Tell-Tale Heart”, “The Conqueror Worm” and “The Raven” in his hour-fifteen set piece. He does the last two as Poe, which is, truth to tell, not much different than the first two as Tsendeas – but it does not matter, since we are looking to be scared, rather than to watch a man dead for 162 years being mimicked.
He interweaves these four pieces with some somewhat corny and vaguely tedious bits of palaver which recall Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, or even Count Floyd, of the old SCTV television series. The first few minutes of this portend disappointment, but once Tsendeas tucks into the stories, he goes to town.
“The Black Cat” is terrific, Tsendeas giving us the tortured, unnamed narrator who, crippled by a terrible addiction to alcohol, commits unspeakable acts – first upon animals, and then upon his wife. Tsendeas squeezes every ounce of horror out of this narrative, and, what is more terrifying, every ounce of mystery – as the now-sober narrator describes his depredations as though he was a passive observer, helpless to stop them. There is a climactic act of ironic revenge, but the real horror is at the outset, when the narrator describes what he has become.
Tsendeas follows this up with “The Tell-Tale Heart” – perhaps not the ideal companion piece, since it goes over ground similar to that of “The Black Cat” and is not as good a story. But Tsendeas delivers the narrative of a deeply psychotic man driven to murder and guilt convincingly, and with great gusto.
Then he slips into his Poe impersonation, largely by sticking a moustache on his face (while delivering semi-amusing asides about stagecraft), and thereafter recites “The Conqueror Worm”, which is about – well, you know what it’s about.
Then we get to the best part: Tsendeas’ superb rendition of “The Raven”, which is among the greatest poems in the English language. Poe is one of America’s seminal writers, but in “The Raven” he surpasses himself to the same degree that his other work surpassed that of most of his contemporaries. “The Raven” is a poem which almost tells itself, so elegantly syncopated is the internal rhyme scheme, and Tsendeas delivers it as it should be delivered – as a conversation, delivered by a man so hopelessly lonely that we can almost see his desiccated heart hanging on a chain around his neck. Poe invokes the emptiness of his narrator’s soul as he cries out for his lost Lenore by invoking the darkness outside his dim bed-chamber (and darkness in the first half of the nineteenth century was real darkness – no streetlamps or ambient light from the city nearby to soften it), and Tsendeas lets the force of the words do the work, without dramatics or histrionics.
Poe, who theorized extensively and intelligently about writing techniques, was a bit of a prophet as well. For example, in “The Black Cat” he anticipated the theory, now prevalent in forensic psychology, that serial killers often begin early in life by torturing animals. And “The Raven” anticipated – by about a hundred and thirty years – the rhyming schemes in rap. Don’t believe me? Compare this passage in “The Raven”
“And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain/Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;/So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating,/” ‘Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door,/Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door./This it is, and nothing more.”
to Wu Tang Clan’s “The Heart Gently Weeps” (2007).
“Lester, smoked Chester sister Vest. I heard it was a mess/They ripped the apple out her throat, blessed her/Hungry hyenas from Medina, all eight trainers/Who got reluct’, think fast and blast from Beamers.”
But Poe’s greatest insight – and it is apparent in Tsendeas’ fine (and inexpensive) show – is into the nature of horror itself: it comes not from outside threat, but from ourselves. And Poe knew it to the moment of his death.
On October 3, 1849, Joseph H. Walker discovered Poe staggering incoherently through the streets of Baltimore, wearing another man’s clothes and shouting “Reynolds! Reynolds!” He had been drinking all night at the Fells Point bar now known as The Horse You Came In On, and was mind-shearingly drunk. Walker took him to Washington College Hospital where, four days later, widowered, bereft of friends, driven mad by drink, Poe surrendered to the conqueror worm.
The Poe Show has 3 performances remaining: Sat, Oct. 22, 2011 at 8 pm, Sunday: Oct 23, 2011 at 2 pm and Monday: Oct 24, 2011 at 7pm. At Rep Stage, Horowitz Center, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Baltimore, Md.
The Poe Show
Stories and poems by Edger Allen Poe adapted for the stage by Tony Tsendeas
Performed and Directed by Tsendeas
Produced at Rep Stage
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes without intermission