It's good to know a little Poe before you go

PROVIDENCE, RI – Through its nearly 50-year history, the Trinity Repertory Company has always striven to present new and sometimes controversial work. Now, they have turned to a new piece concerning Edgar Allan Poe.

At one point in Trinity Rep's occasionally meandering yet always compelling new play about Edgar Allan Poe, an actor quotes from Poe's most famous work, "The Raven." But instead of the poem's never-forgotten use of the word "nevermore" he substitutes "What a bore!"

Ah,. . . no. This production, written by Trinity actor Stephen Thorne and directed by artistic leader Curt Columbus, is never boring.

"The Completely Fictional - Utterly True - Final Strange Tale of Edgar Allan Poe" to give the play its fanciful oh-so-Victorian-era full title, may surge off track now and then. It may confuse the heck out of people who are not Poe-knowlegeable, but it is also a work of art, a piece that sets off sparks, intrigues, stuns with its boldness.

In fact, this Poe play harks back to Trinity's cross-wired glory days when Adrian Hall led a company filled with fire, determined to do art, and damn the financial bean counters.

Playwright Thorne has aimed, it seems, at many things. He wants to give a taste of the hard-tack life of Poe, his boyhood loss of his parents, his penurious college days, his writing triumphs, his boozing days, the death, always around him.

Then, he wants us to feel the essence of Poe's writing, the bile, the melodrama, the glory, the anger, the prescient talent. (Poe, after all, was credited with writing the model of the detective story by none other than Arthur Conan Doyle.)

And, finally, mostly, Thorne wants to investigate, speculate on the death of Poe, a mystery, within a mystery.

All of this is accomplished in a three-act, but just two hours, staging in Trinity's downstairs Dowling Theater. It's done to a gray and black turn that is both spacious and focused by designer Susan Zeeman Rogers. Columbus's direction is crisp, fanciful, funny, and on target as his cast switches roles, costumes, manners and mores with, may I say, Adrian Hall-like quickness and virtuosity.

But, of course, there is no Poe without a super performance and Brian McEleneny gives us that. Tall and spindly, quick footed and ever-crazed, McEleneny, has blackened his hair, penciled in a moustache, and set his eyes to gleaming, in a portrayal never lacking in drive, verging on fanatic ism.

Around him, stream the others. Fred Sullivan Jr. as a witty, cautious Charles Dickens, no less. A surefire Angela Brazil rolls from nurse to European heroine.

Phyllis Kay is also a nurse, and a Greek-theater-like mother, too. The rest of the ensemble is spot on as they change constantly yet retain momentum (another remembrance of Adrian Hall's days).

True enough, this play can be arcane. It will do you well to look up Mr. Edgar Allan Poe before you go. Know much about "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar." No? Won't hurt to check it out.

In the end, it is this play's powerful point, and major conceit, to tell us what it considers to be the cause of Poe's death. He died in 1849 and speculation over the decades has ranged from alcohol-ism to cholera, to rabies, to, well, you name it.

"The Completely Fictional - Utterly True - Final Strange Tale of Edgar Allan Poe" boldly moves ahead with its own decision. And, yes, that is the prerogative of art, to go its own way. (Another Adrian Hall trait.)

But the truth is no one, not doctors, not scientists, not even playwrights, really know what killed the man. His death remains a, riddle, an enigma, a mystery.

Which, you suspect, is exactly as Edgar Allan Poe would want it.

Want to go?
"The Completely Fictional - Utterly True - Final Strange Tale of Edgar Allan Poe" continues at Trinity rep through June 5th.

Do you have insight or expertise on this topic? Please email us, we'd like to hear from you.