Edgar Allen Poe was a master of the macabre. Indeed, viewers of the latest show at the Coterie Theatre may find his work to be a veritable celebration of madness.
“Tell-Tale Electric Poe,” a two-man show conceived, adapted and mounted by artistic director Jeff Church, had its debut at the Coterie in 2009. Actor Bruce Roach interpreted five of Poe’s iconic works -three poems and two short stories- accompanied by the unsettling electric guitar riffs of Scott “Rex” Hobart.
In Church’s current revival, Hobart returns to back the action provided by actor Hughston Walkinshaw. As if to emphasize Poe’s struggles with his inner demons, Walkinshaw first appears to the audience strapped tightly in a straight jacket.
The show begins with the poem “Alone,” one of the writer’s more obscure works, a cry for help from someone confined by his own emotional isolation. As he struggles to free himself from this desolation, he works out of the straps that bind him.
Next up is “The Bells,” a poem where Poe uses repetition, onomatopoeia and increasing intensity to emphasize the grief a man endures upon the death of his wife.
The short story “The Pit and the Pendulum” illustrates the ghastly torture of a man during the Spanish Inquisition. Walkinshaw ably puts us in the shoes of the unfortunate victim, giving an unsettling sense of the prisoner’s agony.
Poe’s most famous work is undoubtedly “The Raven,” the poem about a lonely scholar, still lamenting the loss of his loved one, who envisions a talking bird that drives him to madness.
The finale, a short story called “A Tell-Tale Heart,” is yet another example of someone steered to hysteria by an imagined sound. This time, a murderer hears the heartbeat of his victim…long after hiding the dissected remains.
Hobart’s screeching accompaniment provides the sonic equivalent of fingernails on the chalkboard. He also designed the expressionistic set, employing stabbingly sharp angles that add to the uneasy atmosphere.
Walkinshaw brings a fervid passion to his performances. Although these are five different characters in five different stories, Walkinshaw gives us a sense that what we’re really witnessing is the author’s personal torment.
“Tell-Tale Electric Poe” is part of the Coterie Sparks series that’s aimed directly at preteens and young adults. Although it’s not too scary for most kids over 10 years old, pre-teens will probably have some difficulty with the dense material. This show is best reserved for teens and adults.
While not for all tastes, “The Tell-Tale Electric Poe” serves as a beautifully produced introduction to the work of one of America’s premier writers. It also provides a good way to creep yourself out.
“Tell-Tale Electric Poe” runs through March 9th at the Coterie Theatre in Crown Center, 2450 Grand Blvd, Kansas City, Mo. For information, call 816-474-6552 or visit http://www.coterietheatre.org.