Taking a closer look at Madison theater
Dec 5, 2013
05:01 PM
Stage Write

Positively Poe

PHOTO BY BRENT NICASTRO

"The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could..." UW Theater students get creative with An Evening with Poe.

Starting your theater experience in semi-opulent quarantine isn’t what you’d call typical. Then again, very little about University Theatre’s An Evening with Poe (running in the Hemsley Theater through Sunday, December 8) is, even though the source material’s as familiar as a creepy wind on a dark fall night.

The show is the product of a semester-long collaborative UW–Madison theater class, in which MFA students read the works of Edgar Allen Poe, then put their heads together to adapt them  into vignettes for the stage.

Man, did they grasp the material well.

The fun starts as you enter the theater: Poe’s exquisite “The Masque of the Red Death” is the evening’s framing device, with the ushers checking every audience member for signs of the plague before letting them in. Once inside, the actors perform twenty-three vignettes based on Poe’s poems and short stories as the evening’s entertainment, a distraction from the fact that the Red Death has already staggered inside.

The conceit’s just the first of a long, long line of clever twists and takes on works that thrilled or left you cold in your high-school English class. Some, like “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “Hop-Frog,” get more literal treatments, elevated by solid acting and line-readings. Other more obscure selections, like “A Sonnet to Science,” in which lab-coated researchers go all CSI on a classical statue, are the product of smooth modernization that adds new dimensions to the source material.  

Actually, the augmentation offers some of the show’s best moments. “The Black Cat,” for instance, becomes a crime drama, with detectives unfurling the story’s gruesome narrative from the confines of a police station. In this case, the students have inserted a clever and original twist that Poe himself would have appreciated. Spooky echoes and an unexpected malevolent presence lend an even creepier vibe to Poe’s lost-girlfriend poem, “Annabel Lee.”  

This is an ensemble piece in a very literal sense—the cast and production staff participated in every aspect of its creation, and none of the students are credited with individual roles in any of the vignettes. This shows up in the staging too, where the actors function as a set of gothic windows in “The Raven” and as the wall that entombs the hapless Fortunato in the vignette based on “The Cask of Amontillado.”

The vignettes come steadily over the course of the ninty-minute show—some are meaty, others fly by in the course of minutes—and only rarely is pacing a problem. The shadow play that pantomimes the story in the treasure-hunting tale, “The Gold-Bug,” is an interesting and entertaining theatrical curveball, but the narrator blazes through Poe’s prose at breakneck speed, making it hard to track the story. Percussive elements underpin most of the vignettes, usually adding a deft sense of dread ambience, except in Poe’s poem “Alone,” where they drown out the words. That’s not true in any of the four stanzas of Poe’s classic poem, “The Bells” the cast serves up—whether it’s tech-obsessed people abandoning their Macs to burst into verse, or a clumsy attempt at a marriage ceremony, these feel like a mix o classic lit and slam poetry.  

By the time the quarantine lifts and you’re ushered out, you’ll know that An Evening with Poe is a terrific showcase of young artistic creativity, and a new look at a classic author. If you’re not a fan of (or familiar with) Poe, you will be by the night’s end; if you are, you may never look at him the same way again.  

For more information, visit theatre.wisc.edu

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About This Blog

Once upon a time—okay, it was the mid-'80s—a boy saw a performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the annual summer Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada, and a spark was ignited. Decades later, that spark’s only grown stronger, burning brightly every time the lights go up and the actors begin to tread the stage.

I’ve spent a long time—okay, more than 15 years—watching and writing about Madison’s theater scene. Now, more than ever, it’s clear our bustling burgh is packed with vibrant theater companies doing important, cutting-edge work, whether it’s original and daring content, stunning musicals or thought-provoking stagings of modern and classic plays. Stage Write is a place where we’ll talk about those plays and the people who make them happen, maybe look behind the curtain a little and gain some new perspective on how and why it all comes together. Theater has the power to transform, to educate, to show us who we are and where we’re going in a way no other medium can. Hey, look: The curtain’s rising.

– Aaron R. Conklin
Follow Aaron on Twitter @arconklin

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