All stories are about the loss of power – or, more correctly, loss of the illusion of power, and the more fundamental the loss, the more heart-wrenching the story. Here we are, in the prime of life, conquerors of the Peloton, with a swell job in the Department of Commerce and two kids in a primo Charter school, and in the next moment we are sick, or stripped of our civil service protections, and our kids are on drugs or in gangs or pregnant.
In the happy story, love, or something, conquers all and we are restored to the illusion of control; in the tragedy our illusions crush us, leaving our spouse to note that attention must be paid to our life (but not by us; we’re dead).
In most stories the protagonist struggles, however fecklessly, to regain control, but in the horror story, there is no point to struggle, as the antagonist cannot be resisted. It is otherworldly, powerful beyond words, immortal, ruthless, incapable of mercy. And yet decency and humanity prevail, by courage and happenstance. Thus David becomes expert in the slingshot, Van Helsing discovers the stake-through-the-heart technique, the Martians become prey to common earth viruses, a Dr. Fauci character discovers the vaccine, and ordinary citizens, simply by voting, save democracy in a beleaguered nation.
For Edgar Allan Poe, however, the antagonist is even more formidable, as he is us. In “Masque of the Red Death” and “A Cask of Amontillado”, the two stories of Part 1 of We Happy Few’s audio production of Poe’s masterpieces, Prince Prospero and his follows fall victim to his arrogance in the face of a plague, and Montresor and poor Fortunato are both helpless in the face of the former’s lunatic rage and sense of grievance.
So it is in Part 2 as well, where we meet the enemy, and he is us. In “The Tell-Tale Heart” a man with a diseased mind is driven to a senseless killing, and then invited to further madness by his guilt. In “The Premature Burial,” another man, because of his medical history, obsessively fears that he will fall into a state resembling death and be buried alive as a result. (This was a real phenomenon before embalming became common – so much so that some sepulchers had live telephone lines installed, just in case. Steven King wrote a cool short story of a man paralyzed by snakebite as he lay upon the autopsy table). In one of these stories, Poe does something very unusual for him – offers the possibility of redemption. I’ll let you discover which one it is.
We Happy Few, having been driven from the theater by one of our current horrors, makes good use of the materials at hand. Though Poe can be staged, we are better served by hearing his stories as he wrote them, so that we can experience the poetic rhythm of his words, and appreciate the startling precision with which he invokes his images. Whatever visual a company can put up, it will not match the visual in your head as you sit, eyes closed, cradled between earphones.
Jon Reynolds plays the Tell-Tale Heart’s psychotic narrator with a lip-smacking glee which comes close to, but does not go over, the top. The killer is a madman but he has a lot going on emotionally, including guilt, defensiveness and a dawning self-awareness. It is a difficult balance, but Reynolds gets most of it. Desirée Chappelle plays his wheezing victim, and Alex Turner is a lawman who stops in to find out the source of the noises he heard coming from the old manse.
Dylan J. Fleming is the man obsessed with the possibility of premature burial, and at first I thought the tone he takes to be drier and more academic than the piece calls for. Poe begins the story with a history of the protagonist’s condition, which he calls “catalepsy” (this is the symptom, not the disease; the disease is generally bad doctoring). Fleming seems detached as he goes through this background, and it seemed a bit of a letdown after Reynolds’ fevered presentation. But Fleming’s measured pace is well-designed to draw us in; by the time he reaches the story’s astonishing conclusion, you will be right there with him. Trust me.
The lucid-voiced Paige O’Malley serves as host, and delivers two short Poe poems – “Eldorado” and the heartbreaking “Alone.”
In my review of Part 1, I criticized the intrusiveness of Robert Pike and Tosin Olufolabi’s sound design, which seemed to punctuate every event in the narrative with a specific sound. I’m happy to announce that except for a few moments at the beginning of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the problem has been solved in Part 2. Here the sound design is seamlessly integrated with the text, and Pike and Olufolabi’s art enhances, rather than distracts from, the story. I recommend that you wrap your head in earphones when you listen to Part 2, as it will allow you to fully appreciate the design. It will also prevent you from distracting your housemates, who may be watching their own horror stories on the news.
A Midnight Dreary, Episodes 1 and 2 will be available through January 19.
Tickets: $10, available here.
A Midnight Dreary, Part 2, an audio presentation of “The Tell-Tale Heart”, “The Premature Burial”, “Alone” and “Eldorado,” all by Edgar Allan Poe . Directed by Robert Pike and Bridget Grace Sheaff . Featuring Jon Reynolds, Desirée Chappelle, Alex Turner, Dylan J. Fleming, Paige O’Malley and Kerry McGee . Sound design by Robert Poke and Tosin Olufolabi . Sam Reilly is the Production Manager . Produced by We Happy Few . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.