ORLANDO — As a longtime fan of the writings of the great Edgar Allan Poe, I always appreciate the opportunity to explore his works in different mediums — although I’ve always assumed that I’m most likely to find it at, say, a meeting of a literary book club, or perhaps readings of Poe’s work at the public library around Halloween.
So I was naturally delighted to find Poe all over the place at the Orlando Fringe Festival this year — immortalized in an original play inspired by both his life and his writings, and to find one of his best known short stories brought to life on stage, and even to find artwork devoted to the literary genius who is said to have invented the detective thriller and created some of the most enduringly disturbing tales of creeping madness ever put on the page.
This year, Fringe truly has something for every Poe fan.
Lets start with “Edgar Allan,” an original piece by The Coldharts, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based team of performers. “Edgar Allan” was created and performed by Katie Hartman and Nick Ryan. Hartman plays Edgar Allan as an 11-year-old, a child given up by his parents — two starving theater performers — and taken in by a wealthy couple that nevertheless refuses to legally adopt him.
Their story opens with Edgar Allan about to enter boarding school, burning with the desire to be the most remarkable boy in the entire institution.
But he quickly discovers one huge and unexpected obstacle: Edgar Allen, a boy with the same name and looks, though with a very different temperament. They begin to spend time together, although it’s not always clear that’s because the Edgar Allan played by Hartman truly appreciates or enjoys being alongside the one played by Ryan.
Hartman’s Edgar Allan is impulsive, short-tempered, impertinent and loud — and she’s an absolute delight in the role, with a voice that soars into a grating high-pitched squeal in a split second, as she moves at the speed of lighting whenever her Edgar Allen gets annoyed to a fever pitch.
Ryan would appear to have the more subdued role — his Edgar Allan is quieter, more affectionate, hardly prone to outbursts or deception — but he gets an equal number of strong laughs as he speaks in a soft, frog-croaking voice and shows an infinite amount of patience with his twin’s shrill fits. They’re a great match.
“Edgar Allan” the play dips into bits and pieces of the author’s life, hinting at how he may have developed the dark outlook on life that would eventually come out so brilliantly in his writings. The play also makes references to some of the author’s best known stories, including the doppleganger theme of “William Wilson” and the eerie revenge tale “The Cask of Amontillado.”
A more traditional — but equally enjoyable — version of Poe comes courtesy of the performers who make up the production “Phantasmagoria: Wicked Little Tales.”
The circus-like group of actors, singers, dancers and puppeteers have spent most of the past decade reviving classic tales of terror from the vaults of great literature, and this year they’re a part of Fringe as well.
Among the four stories they recreate is Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” John DiDonna, the author and director of the ongoing Phantasmagoria productions, here plays the tale’s narrator who is “very, very dreadfully nervous” as he tries to convince the audience that he truly is perfectly sane — even as he describes the murder he’s just committed.
It’s true that he describes a killing that seems highly calculated, and how afterwards he dismembers the body and hides it under the floorboards. But he is sane, okay?
In addition to DiDonna’s excellent nervous-as-a-sweaty-palm performance as the killer, the Phantasmagoria troop do an excellent job of illustrating how the killer comes unhinged when he thinks he hears the victim’s heart beating under the floor. You’ll get a delightful chill up your spine as you watch the women in the troop repeatedly tap their high heels against the floor — tap tap, tap tap, tap tap — a sound effect that brings the killer to the verge of collapse. This is as good a reenactment of Poe as I’ve ever seen.
This “Phantasmagoria” production also recreates two other classic tales of terror, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving, and “Frankenstein.” And while both are quite well done, it’s the Mary Shelley tale that really excels, both in scenes of the scientist Dr. Frankenstein playing God in his laboratory as he attempts to revive dead flesh, and even more effectively as he chases his creation onto an icy wilderness, where they finally confront one another.
The monster is recreated in part through one of Phantasmagoria’s hallmarks, a larger-than-life puppet, one that looks a bit like an aged hippie from the 1960s, but fits nicely into this piece. As always, the Phantasmagoria production is stylish, well acted, and done with a great deal of wit and innovation.
If you go to Fringe to catch either of these Poe shows, but sure to also visit the lobby of the Lowndes Shakespeare Center and look for the painting by Margie Forestier. Titled “Edgar Allan Poe,” it’s a beautiful salute to the writer and some of his best known literary creations.
A third Poe Fringe production called “Poe! Poe! Poe!” will be performed on Saturday at 2 p.m. at Lake Mary High School in Longwood. This 30-minute production is part of Teen Fringe, and is appropriate for ages 7 and up. The show explores the life and writings of the famed author of the macabre, and tickets are $5.
“Edgar Allan” is being performed in the Green Venue at the Orlando Repertory Theater, and will be performed on:
* Wednesday at 6 p.m.
* Friday at 9:30 p.m.
* Saturday at midnight.
* Sunday at 3:15 p.m.
Tickets are $11.
“Phantasmagoria: Wicked Little Tales” is being performed in the Orange Venue, the Margeson Theater at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center, on:
* Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
* Sunday at 9:30 p.m.
Tickets are also $11.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..