Hip Shot: Embodying Poe
Fort Fringe – The Shop, 607 New York Ave NW
Wednesday, July 20, 10 p.m.
Friday, July 22, 11:59 p.m.
Running Time: 50 minutes
They say: Embodying Poe personalizes Poe's poetic persona in a Feast of Words, combining psycho-biographical narrative, music, and visuals, with seven of Poe's explorations of Love, Death, Demons, and the Universe. Includes 'The Raven' as well as 'Eureka!' and 'Ulalume.'
Derek's Take: Kudos to the Sanctuary Theatre for resisting the urge to cast a young-ish, neo-Gothic hipster in the role of Edgar Allan Poe. You can see it now, can't you? A Jack Skellington string-bean hunched over in an ill-fitting striped suit with his fingertips pressed together, speaking in Transylvanian tones? And now...The Raven—mwahahahahahaha! Such a choice might have generated some buzz, but it also would have done a huge disservice to the material and its tortured creator. Thankfully, Sanctuary gets it right by going the other way, tapping the silver-haired Robert Michael Oliver to bring vigor and life to seven of Poe's notable works
Oliver strikes an elegant figure, a professorial type with a slightly dandified air. He plays two roles, actually—an academic of sorts, determined to get to the bean in Poe the poet and expose his psychological underpinnings, and the artist himself. The production flip-flops between the two characters, the professor speculating in his quiet, well-appointed study, Poe in a black-magic haze (conveyed by swirling images projected onto a screen) downstage. But for all the professor's trivia, meted out in chronological fragments tied to the dates of the works performed, it's Oliver's mastery of Poe's written word—and his interpretation of its subtext—that makes this an occasionally spine-tingling entertainment.
He opens with Alone, a short verse that introduces the haunting themes that would become the author's hallmark. Although the poem ends before the audience can adjust to its rhythm, it establishes Oliver's gift for reciting Poe as effortlessly as if he were speaking his own words. His performance hits a high note as he gallops through Silence: A Fable, which recounts a demon's torment of a trembling man crouched upon on a rock by the river Zaire. (Ten bucks if you can find the place he's talking about.) This prose piece resembles a tongue-twister and challenges Oliver to recreate its breathless repetitions and sinuous syntax without overrunning the narrative. He succeeds on both counts. But it's with the Raven, at the show's midpoint, that sublimity of performance and word unite.
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary... With this opening line, the audience eased back into its chairs as if both to say Hey, I know this one! and welcome forth the proverbial feast of words. What ensues is a paranoid frolic. Oliver patrols the stage as the poem's distraught lover spirals into madness and the raven, at his appointed intervals, lets fly his now-classic comment: Nevermore! As it passes through the actor's lips, the word sounds chilling and definitive. All hope is lost. By the time of his final utterance, the audience broke decorum and showered him in applause.
The show, for all its merits, has a few flaws with respect to its audio/visual elements. The large video screen backing the action onstage is an often distracting presence, introducing swirling spacescapes and roiling ocean imagery that can draw the audience away from Oliver's dapper histrionics. The same can be said for the spooky/kooky music overlaying the performance. It's as if the producers didn't trust the poetry itself to convey those very feelings. Otherwise, this is a strong one-man effort that highlights Poe's macabre and otherworldly insights, which still echo over 160 years after his death.
See it if: If you're a tweed cyclist feeling out of place in this Internet-addled age.
Skip it if: "The Raven" invokes thoughts of Ray-Ray and another disappointing football season.