ORLANDO — A pitch dark room, containing nothing but a single chair.
The curtains pull back and a man enters the stage. The lights do not rise, at least at first, and it’s difficult to make out his features.
And then .. he begins to speak … in an animated voice, almost excited, rather giddy.
“True!” he says. “Nervous — very very dreadfully nervous I had been and am. But why will you say that I am mad?”
If you’re a longtime fan of the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, as I am, chances are you’ll recognize the opening line to Poe’s classic tale of murder, insanity, and guilt — “The Tell-Tale heart.”
The lights rise, and our host, actor John Devennie, begins the first of three Poe tales as part of his show “Poe Man” at the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival.
Now, I’ll say this right off the bat: this nearly three-week long festival has plenty of solo shows, where the lone performers attempt everything from comedy to singing to magic tricks. In his solo show, Devennie brings to his audience truly excellent material. If you’ve never sat down on a dark and stormy evening, and read through a collection of Poe’s tales of terror, you’re really missing out. The American author of tales of horror, mystery and even the first detective story in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” died tragically young at age 40, under equally mysterious circumstances. But his writings seems as fresh, provocative and enjoyable today as it must have for audiences in his lifetime.
Devennie also happens to be an excellent performer. Playing the narrator and all of the characters in each piece, he’s versatile, funny, eerie and poignant at various times, with a skillful ability to convincingly shift from one persona to the next. There’s nothing else on the stage except that chair, but the combination of Poe’s superb writing and Devennie delivery guarantee nothing else is needed.
Poe has been a surprisingly popular figure at the Orlando Fringe Festival in past years — a reminder of how influential his writing is among fellow artists. Last year’s Fringe featured “Edgar Allan,” an original play by The Coldharts, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based team of performers who portrayed Edgar Allan as an 11-year-old sent off to boarding school, where he meets his doppelganger.
That same year, actor John DiDonna recreated “The Tell-Tale Heart” in his production “Phantasmagoria: Wicked Little Tales,” about the circus-like group of actors, singers, dancers and puppeteers who revive classic tales of terror from the vaults of great literature.
And in 2015, Theatre Downtown brought to Fringe “Poe,” the play by Stephen Most that speculates on how Poe might have died in Baltimore, and also showed how his sad, tragic life was reflected in his writings.
Those shows featured casts ranging from two to more than 10 people. Devennie, on the other hand, approaches his show with an entirely different concept. If you place a man on a mostly bare stage and have him read Poe’s stories, would that work as a play?
It does, indeed.
Devennie is quite good as the mad narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” who gets driven insane by the constant thump-thump-thump sound coming from his floor; and he also does an excellent job as the narrator (here with a southern accent) of Poe’s classic poem “The Raven,” about the strange visits a man gets one dreary December evening from a talking raven, which taps on his window as the man laments the loss of his great love, Lenore. The man’s distress only heightens as the raven makes a constant repetition of the word “Nevermore.”
The real delight, though, is the middle story, Poe’s “Hop Frog,” a tale of revenge. The title character is a deformed man taken from his homeland to serve against his will as the jester of a crude king. When the king, fond of cruel jokes, strikes Hop Frog’s friend and fellow dwarf Trippetta, Hop Frog plays a cruel trick of his own by dressing the king and his cabinet up as orangutans for a masquerade.
What happens next is gruesome, chilling, and classic Poe.
Devennie is just terrific here, playing multiple characters in a story with a truly fiendish finale.
The bottom line is that, yes, Poe’s work is still so effective today that it works beautifully as a theatrical piece. And in the hands of a gifted actor, it’s that much better.
“Poe Man” is being performed in the Brown Venue. Catch it on the following times:
* Wednesday May 24 at 7:15 p.m.
* Thursday May 25 at 10:30 p.m.
* Saturday, May 27 at 2:15 p.m.
* Sunday, May 28 at 2:45 p.m.
For tickets visit Orlando Fringe.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..