Lost in Baltimore

For more than three decades, New York Theatre Workshop has nurtured cutting-edge dramatists such as Harry Kondoleon, Caryl Churchill, Tony Kushner, and Athol Fugard. The company introduced Rent to the world in 1995; but, only in recent seasons have musicals -- OncePeter and the StarcatcherA Civil War Christmas, and the innovative revue What’s It All About? Bacharach Reimagined -- become a major aspect of NYTW's artistic profile. The current offering, Red-Eye to Havre de Grace, is an eccentric music-theater piece about Edgar Allan Poe's last days. Although credited to an authorial committee of six, Red-Eye to Havre de Grace has a singular theatrical style that's as bracing as any of the music-theater pieces mentioned above. 

The six people who have “created” Red-Eye to Havre de Grace are the show’s director and scenic designer (Thaddeus Phillips), its choreographer (Sophie Bortolussi), the actor who plays Poe (Ean Sheehy), siblings who composed the musical score (David and Jeremy Wilhelm), and Geoff Sobelle (listed merely as “co-creator”). Jeremy Wilhelm handles multiple roles, sings and plays guitar and clarinet; David Wilhelm is the production’s pianist. The sole performer not credited as an author is Alessandra L. Larson, who dances the ghostly role of Poe’s wife Virginia. 

Poe, a master of the literary macabre and, arguably, the first professional writer in American history, died in Baltimore on October 7, 1849. Forty years old and a resident of the Bronx, he had been traveling during the preceding weeks, giving lectures and readings, searching for literary work, raising money for a journal he intended to start and, possibly, laying the groundwork for a move to Virginia. After stops in Boston, Philadelphia, Richmond, and Norfolk, Poe boarded the wrong train and arrived in Maryland by mistake. His confusion may have been a function of illness or of alcohol or laudanum (both of which figure prominently in his biography).

Red-Eye to Havre de Grace opens with a prologue spoken by a man (Jeremy Wilhelm) who introduces himself as Steve Reynolds, “a ranger for the United States National Park Service stationed at the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site in Philadelphia.” Ranger Steve is in New York, he says, to give audiences a little background on Poe. His speech, which captures the enthusiasm of an obsessive docent, covers Poe's origins, his turbulent personal life, the variety of his literary output, and his desperate hopes for Eureka, the metaphysical treatise “which he believed to be his greatest work, in which he offered  the full explanation of the origin and annihilation of the universe.”

The goofy, satiric quality of Ranger Steve's prologue puts the audience on notice that Red-Eye to Havre de Grace is no common-and-garden docu-drama. The scenes that follow draw on Poe's verse and prose, including letters and a mystifying passage from Eureka. The authors of the play don’t strain to link effects to causes, choosing instead to dramatize in visual and musical terms the grief that consumed Poe following the death of his very young wife (who was also his cousin) and his anxiety about how to promote his literary career while supporting himself and the mother-in-law (also his aunt) whom he adored.

Red-Eye to Havre de Grace is a succession of provocative images rather than straightforward narrative. Scenic designer (and director) Phillips and lighting designer Drew Billiau provide a visually arresting environment through which the actors navigate the complex movements of Phillips' direction and Bortolussi's nearly mesmerizing choreography. The direction and design are enhanced by the Wilhelm brothers' beautiful, varied musical score. Rosemarie McKelvey's simple, picturesque costumes contribute a great deal to the visual effect of the piece, as well.

For 90 minutes, the actors of Red-Eye to Havre de Grace, enact Poe's turbulent emotions and disintegrating intellect with engaging theatricality. The authors wisely avoid reaching for explanations of things that are lost in the interstices of the historical record. Red-Eye to Havre de Grace may do little to dispel the mystery of Poe's last days, but the authors and actors shed considerable light on what it means to strive and hope and grieve.     

Red-Eye to Havre de Grace is running through Sunday, June 1, 2014, at New York Theatre Workshop (79 East 4th St.). Performances are 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday; 8 p.m. on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday; 3 p.m. on Saturday; and 2 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are $85, $40, and discounted to student groups of 10 or more. Ticket information at www.nytw.org or by calling 212-279-4200.

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