Doctuh Mistuh and Penfold Theatre's Nevermore

In Jonathan Christenson's musical, Edgar Allan Poe's life is imagined as a spooky, entrancing dance of the spirits

Tyler Jones' Poe (foreground) surrounded by the cast of Nevermore (Photo by Kimberly Mead)

Unrecorded in the standard biographies of Edgar Allan Poe is a moment when the writer was visited by the spirits of his dead mother, the celebrated if self-absorbed actress Eliza Poe, and his deceased foster mother, the unfortunately delusional Fanny Allan, and danced with them. That episode does appear, though, in Jonathan Christenson's musical bio, and it tells you a lot about Nevermore: The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe and how the play views its subject.

Nevermore emphasizes Death's presence in Poe's life from an early age, taking the people nearest and dearest to him and leaving him bereft. When the two important maternal figures he's known appear, he engages them in a courtly dance. As staged by Michael McKelvey in this revival of the B. Iden Payne Award-winning production from 2016 (here co-produced by McKelvey's Doctuh Mistuh Productions and Penfold Theatre Company), Poe and his partners never touch; their hands rest on air, a foot of it between them, as they twirl across the floor in three-quarter time. It's an image at once elegant and eerie, the space between the dancers accentuating the scene's unnatural quality: the quick and the dead together yet apart. Without words, it describes Death's imprint on Poe, how he will be forever entranced by and intertwined with it. This is his life: waltzing with ghosts.

In that, ahem, spirit, much of the show glides like a dance. The conceit of Christenson's script is that Poe encounters a troupe of players who act out his life story around him, so the troupe's half-dozen performers are constantly shifting scenes and characters, moving the set's three monumental tombstones and chest-sized boxes to form walls, benches, crypts, etc., and embodying key figures in Poe's world and art. McKelvey's staging and his ensemble's movements are so fluid as to be balletic, but they also evoke a dream, with places and people changing suddenly and events flowing into one another. With the play sung-through, its music running continuously beneath the rhyming text that echoes Edgar Allan's poetry, Nevermore seems to be ever spinning – a nightmare whirl.

It's a whirl as thrilling as a spook house – at least initially. The scenes of Poe's youth embellish the misery with some grand comic excess: Suzanne Balling's Eliza, staring into the spotlight with a diva-ish fervor worthy of Norma Desmond; Emily Smith's Fanny Allan, her mind stolen by an imp (of the perverse, no doubt), hooting like a great bird; Matt Connely's Jock Allan, bellowing at his foster son in a Scottish burr thicker than Birnam Wood. It's like the 20th century's comic masters of morbidness – Charles Addams, Edward Gorey, and Tim Burton – had wanted to toast Poe and created this macabre cocktail. (The costumes by Glenda Wolfe have a particularly Beetlejuice-iness, with such charmingly ghoulish flourishes as a spider's-web headdress, spider-patterned bloomers, black skull epaulets, and a corset with a raven stitched onto it.)

But as Poe's gloomy life grows even gloomier, so does Nevermore. The promise of true love with an equally death-fixated young woman named Elmira – Natalie Blackman, her eyes flashing an irresistible wickedness – is dashed; some professional success is finally realized with "The Raven" (presented here with almost operatic grandeur and intensity), then quickly snatched away by rival Rufus Griswold (Stephen Mercantel, reveling in revenge); debts and alcoholism all but bury Poe; and, of course, Death is there, stealing away his dear brother Henry (Joey Banks, shining in his optimism) and beloved wife Cissy (Smith, radiating sincere love). Throughout the play, Poe has been fighting to find hope, but eventually he loses the fight. The circles under the eyes of Tyler Jones' Poe seem to darken and the light seems to fade. He's no longer dancing with ghosts. He's like the woman Elmira tells him of, the one who was prematurely buried and awoke to find herself entombed with the dead. It's a dark turn for what began in such a gleeful Halloween mood, but it's a tribute to McKelvey and company that the shift from "treat" to "trick" retains its power to compel. You might as well be reading a story by Poe; you stay through the end despite the horror. Or because of it.

Nevermore: The Imaginary Life and Mysterious death of Edgar Allan Poe

Ground Floor Theatre,
979 Springdale #122
Through Nov. 10
Running time: 2 hr., 25 min.

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Doctuh Mistuh Productions, Penfold Theatre Company, Michael McKelvey, Jonathan Christenson, Tyler Jones, Stephen Mercantel, Matt Connely, Joey Banks, Emily Smith, Suzanne Balling, Natalie Blackman, Edgar Allan Poe

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