I took in Cabaret Poe last weekend for the first time, where, much to my delight and discomfort, I found myself being stared down by one of the actors near the end of the first act.
It was the character Morella (played by Georgeanna Smith-Wade) who had come into the audience with a stern expression in reaction to my amusement. I looked away and then back and she was still giving me the evil eye.
She kept in character the whole time, oozing all the emotional charm of a professional ghoul.
There must have been many such icy stares in the now 10-year-history of Q Artistry’s Cabaret Poe. This year, the Phoenix Theatre is presenting the musical in its versatile black block theater and sharing producing credits with Q.
Director Ben Asaykwee discovered the Poe poem “Annabelle Lee” in 2007, and that was all it took to inspire the show. In his director’s notes Asaykwee writes, “I fell in love.”
“Up to that point, I had only experienced the words of one of America’s literary geniuses through required reading in high school and the occasional pop culture mention.”
Asaykwee, who recited “Annabelle Lee” during last Friday’s performance, plays the role of Zoilus. The name comes from a character who meets his untimely end in a Poe short story, as so many of them do. The role of Zoilus is akin to the emcee in that other Cabaret—the movie version starring Joel Grey and Liza Minnelli.
Morella and Berenice (Julie Lyn Barber) accompany Zoilus in reciting the best known Poe poems or, as in the case of “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Tell-Tale Heart,” acting out these macabre stories.
In this year’s production, Morella is played on alternating dates by Renae Stone and Georgeanna Smith-Wade while Berenice’s alternate is Jaddy Ciucci. There’s also the masked shadow dancer, dressed in a body-hugging green leotard, played by Rebekah Taylor, doing her part to keep things appropriately ghoulish.
In addition to a committed cast, the wardrobe certainly helps keep things ghoulish. The women wear black Victorian-style dresses, while Asaykwee presents like Grandpa Munster. And the set design adds to the effect. That is, the stage is auster--like an abandoned netherworld walkway.
There’s also a three piece band—drums, piano cello—accompanying the performers as they sing about all the dastardly goings on “here at Cabaret Poe,” giving a sort of musical prologue for the dramas presented.
The plots in the Poe stories Q Artistry presents are pretty simple, so the actors are able to get to the climaxes pretty quickly. Of course there’s all kinds of reductions and additions to the original Poe text, made out of necessity, in bringing these works to the stage.
Even in abbreviated form, however, there is a psychological resonance to these stories that feels particularly modern.
In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the unnamed narrator hears a dead man’s beating heart. You might imagine a serial killer going through a similar psychological disturbance today.
Out of all the Poe short stories that serve as fodder for Cabaret Poe, it’s the finale, “The Masque of the Red Death,” that feels most contemporary.
In “The Masque,”a plague threatens the surrounding countryside. Prince Prospero’s solution is to basically close up his castle, like Ethan Hawke’s character in The Purge, but with enough provisions and live entertainment to to outlast the destruction outside.
It’s human nature to be scared shitless of our own shadows, however, and Prince Prospero’s bunker mentality can only last so long.
During the performance Zoilus and company bring in the occasional pop culture reference. But I’m not sure if, when Assaykwee shouts out “I’m gonna party like it’s 1999,” it’s really needed to underscore the precarious state of the world outside our own private Idahos.
While Edgar Allan Poe wasn’t universally appreciated in his time, he did have a band of devoted followers. This included the poet Charles Baudelaire who translated his works into French in the 1850s, and considered Poe to be not just a writer, but a philosopher.
Perhaps the highest praise I can give Cabaret Poe is that it has ignited in me the desire to read everything Poe ever wrote. Like Asaykwee, I didn’t really take to the Poe poems that I was forced to read in high school.
I’m wondering what the next Q Artistry production will inspire me to do.