ORLANDO — The short stories by the great Edgar Allan Poe lend themselves remarkably well to stage adaptations, as the Theatre Downtown production of Stephen Most’s play “Poe” demonstrates.
The fact is that Poe’s macabre tales — like “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Masque of the Red Death” and The Cask of Amontillado” – really come to life in the dark black box theater at the Orlando Repertory Theater where this production is now being produced as part of the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival.
Within those black walls, lighting effects and in particular sounds – the beating of a heart, a victim screaming to be let out of the dank dungeon he’s being sealed up in – have the ability to send a cold chill up your spine.
What’s also interesting in this production is the fact that Poe’s own life – which had its own share of highly dramatic content – makes for effective stage drama as well.
And then there’s the third factor in the play: Poe’s very mysterious death. What’s known is that on Oct. 3, 1849 – the same day the play opens — Poe was found on the streets of Baltimore, totally delirious. He was taken to the Washington Medical College and died four days later. He never became coherent long enough to explain how he fell into this dire condition.
“Poe” offers its own theory, in the first few minutes of the play, suggesting that the author may have came to the attention of some rowdy locals, started drinking, and become belligerent. He was eventually beaten and robbed.
As the play’s director, Frank Hilgenberg, noted, “We speculate that he was startled by someone who reminded him of his first wife. Something happened, and the play tries to speculate by using his life, and his very eerie stories, to show what happened to him.”
As Poe falls to the ground from the beating, the audience slips into his now semi-conscious psyche. Another clever aspect of Most’s writing is the way he successfully hints that Poe’s private life, often quite torturous, could have provided rich inspiration for his darkest stories.
Poe’s father abandoned the family in 1810, and his mother died the following year. The orphaned child was taken in by John and Frances Allan, of Richmond, Virginia. While they never formally adopted him, Poe lived with the family until his young adulthood – though as “Poe” demonstrates, his adopted “father” was tyrannical and violent and often beat the young Poe with a cane.
The play also explores the decision by Poe, at age 26, to marry his 13-year-old cousin, Virginia Clemm, whom he deeply loved – but who would succumb to tuberculosis. Clemm’s slow death provides “Poe” with one of its most moving, and frequently painful to watch, scenes.
Along the way, the play weaves in and out of Poe’s difficult life, and then his classic writing, until it comes back full circle to his limp body being found on the streets of Baltimore, beaten and confused, rambling.
Theatre Downtown has produced “Poe” several times in the past, and it’s easy to see why they have come back to it again. It’s hard to decide which scenes are more dramatic and gripping, as they cast a glimpse into Poe’s biography, or eerily recreate his stories.
Aiding the production significantly is a terrific performance by Chris Prueitt as Poe, who captures a man whose brilliance never quite translates into the ability to find peace, serenity and happiness in his private life.
While the entire cast is excellent, John Moughan as the harsh John Allan, and Domino Thomas in a brilliant pantomime as one of Poe’s classic characters, The Raven, really stand out.
Theatre Downtown is performing this production in the Green Venue at The REP at 1001 E. Princeton St. Upcoming shows are tonight at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 8:45 p.m. and Sunday at 11:30 a.m.
Tickets to see “Poe” are $11 and available at the Fringe box office located inside the Lowndes Shakespeare Center, 812 E. Rollins St.
Michael Freeman in an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..