The 19th-century American author Edgar Allan Poe didn’t just write mystery, he lived it—and died it. In September 1849, Poe set out from Virginia on what would be his last lecture tour, headed for New York City, only to end up in Baltimore a week later, delirious, raving and dressed in a stranger’s clothes. Taken to the hospital, he died four days later, never regaining full consciousness and repeatedly calling out the name “Reynolds.”
Poe and his enigmatic last days are the subject of Red-Eye to Havre de Grace, a one-of-a-kind theatrical work combining spine-tingling narrative, live music, movement, set design and visual effects, coming to The Moore Theater of the Hopkins Center on Friday and Saturday, April 1 and 2, at 8 pm. In addition, there is a free public book arts workshop on March 29 at which one may make a Poe quote “broadsheet on letter press, and a public theater workshop on March 30 with the director of this production.
The show has been called “fluid, dreamlike…surreal and haunting…as fleet as a Wes Anderson comedy” (Entertainment Weekly) and “without a doubt, one of the most spellbinding trips I have taken in a long time…Four performers bring a breathtaking array of talent to create the sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, always captivating world of Poe” (Boston Globe). Writes TheaterMania: “Everything about this production is inventive, visually arresting, and utterly memorable. Who needs big-budget effects when you have a great story and a keen understanding of how to manipulate the senses?”
Raved The New York Times, “With great invention, affection and wit, Red-Eye to Havre de Grace adds new dimensions to our understanding of an American writer more famed than honored these days, creating a moving portrait of a gifted but haunted man struggling against psychological demons and the dark tide that draws us all toward extinction.”
Author of such macabre literary classics as The Tell-Tale Heart, The Raven and The Fall of the House of Usher, Poe was the personification of 19th-century Romanticism with his dark, tousled looks, consumptive child bride and puzzling death. Like other “pop stars” of his time, he made his living on the lecture circuit, shuttling by train from city to city, constantly badgered to recite his “big hit,” The Raven.
In Red-Eye, we enter Poe’s world through the magic of innovative theater director Thaddeus Phillips (whose company is called Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental), in collaboration with Minneapolis-based composers Jeremy and David Wilhelm and Teller of magic duo Penn & Teller, with a script informed by 19th century train routes, historical accounts and Poe’s loquacious letters to his mother-in-law on topics ranging from the Gold Rush to the nature of the universe to styles of furniture.
As Red-Eye opens, we’re in the present, being greeted by an affable park ranger at an Edgar Allan Poe historic site in Philadelphia. The ranger’s wholesome introduction soon gives way to the shadowy, haunted and at times funny world of Poe, told through song and absorbing theatrics. The stage becomes a realistic yet surreal landscape, using only three rectangular tables and a patch of grass that—in sleight-of-hand stagecraft that’s a metaphor for the complex, changeable connections in the late writer’s mind—transform from train compartment to hotel lobby to attic and even to a comforting lawn where Poe lays barefoot. Poe drifts through this unsettling landscape, haunted throughout by the silent, prowling spirit of his young bride, Virginia, who died of tuberculosis two years earlier. The play’s title refers to a Maryland station where a train conductor spotted Poe, heading south to Baltimore.
Working under the company name of Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental, Phillips is an actor, writer, director, filmmaker and stage designer whose influences include British theater director Peter Brooks, Canadian director and designer Robert Lepage and Czech puppet theater. Each of his stage shows is entirely unique—from his solo version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1996) set in a plastic kiddie wading pool; to his original play ¡El Conquistador! (2010), in which he portrays an apartment house doorman conversing by video screens with building occupants; to his new Alias Ellis Mackenzie (2015), a behind-the-scenes look at a TV serial melodrama about a drug-cartel pilot, involving a dozen actors on a huge stage filled with painted flats, real Cadillac parts, and skeletal versions of camera boom arms. (The work was inspired by Phillips’ own experiences portraying an airline pilot on a popular Colombian TV series.) His work is known for what some call “liquid staging,” in which the sets fluidly collapse and transform from one scene into another.
Phillips’s work has been seen all around the US (Washington, DC, Denver, Cleveland, Miami, etc.—as well as Philadelphia and New York). He has performed in theater festivals in Europe and South America. He is the subject of an admiring profile in the January 2016 issue of American Theatre.
Wilhelm Bros. & Co. is a Minneapolis-based theater/music collaboration between real-life siblings, theater artist Jeremy Wilhelm and composer/multi-instrumentalist David Wilhelm. Along with creating original works of musical theater, the Wilhelms perform original music and eclectic covers and are currently working on music for Tectonic Theatre Project’s performance about Autism Spectrum Disorder.