The Madness of Poe Lives On in “Red-Eye To Havre De Grace”

Christopher Falcioni ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Stage Editor

Sophie Bortolussi as Virginia, Ean Sheehy as Poe, and Jeremy Wilhelm. Photo courtesy of Johanna Austin and ArtsEmerson.
Sophie Bortolussi, Ean Sheehy and Jeremy Wilhelm in Red-Eye To Havre De Grace. Photo Credit: Johanna Austin/ArtsEmerson.

When one thinks on Edgar Allen Poe’s works, such as “The Raven,” “The Bells,” or any number of his increasingly darker poems, it’s almost impossible to put the author out of your mind. The words dance so closely together, so mysteriously, that they don’t seem to be of this world. So who could have come up with these words? Who thought of these mystifyingly macabre rhymes and situations? Of course, it was a man. An American man, and born in Boston, too. Here, Poe is real. And even when he reaches madness, reality is always grounding in the play’s world, keeping us suspended in the elusive space between reality and fantasy that only theatre can give us.

Red-Eye To Havre De Grace, conceived by the Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental theatrical collective, is a pseudo-musical “action-opera” that takes place during the last few days of Poe’s life. It’s a real-life work in progress, originally staged in Philadelphia and now at ArtsEmerson where it continues progression, and almost outwardly so. In fact, some of its rehearsals were open to the public. While the show has kinks, it will likely get tighter and better as the show inevitably gets more work done.

Red-Eye is strange, and reasonably so. It’s about a descent into madness. But one of the important parts of the piece is that we never truly feel “tricked” by anything going on. We may be surprised, but somehow there is something mystifyingly real about the production, perhaps something in the newness of it, and it totally works in the show’s favor. While the madness amidst the reality of his last few days might be the most important aspect of Poe’s life, the other quintessential aspect of Poe is his look. Ean Sheehy certainly fits the bill. But Sheehy isn’t only a pretty face. In fact, none of the cast members are slackers. Through Sheehy’s memorization of copious dialogue and poetry, his dead specter of a wife Victoria (played by choreographer Sophie Bortolussi) contortions through the floor and in the air, and the two musicians’ constant playing, we get a piece filled with incredible energy.

Sophie Bortolussi and Ean Sheehy in Red-Eye To Havre De Grace. Photo Credit: Johanna Austin/ArtsEmerson.
Sophie Bortolussi and Ean Sheehy in Red-Eye To Havre De Grace. Photo Credit: Johanna Austin/ArtsEmerson.

The “Raven” sequence is definitely the highlight of the night. Certain moments shine like the light bulbs scattered around the set, and Poe, crazy as he is, is consistently relatable. He’s not as much of a jerk as we may believe, and the way that he deals with the cards he’s been dealt is enjoyably tragic.

But there might be too many cooks in the kitchen. One of the only things Red-Eye truly lacks is a good director—the cast directed the show collectively. The issue is that, often, scenes run too long, they seem over-indulgent to the actors, and they could be staged in a more visually appealing way to the audience. The lighting design is a bit of a nightmare in this production, combined with actors missing their marks and making distracting choices wind up being strange rather than bold. Similarly, the sets don’t look grungy or quaintly minimal, but shoddy. Another shame is Sophie Bortolussi’s head-scratching choreography: sometimes a hit, like in her late-show tea party scene (clearly borrowed from her time as leading actress in two shows by theatre company “Punchdrunk”), but oftentimes a miss, as she and other actors crawl on the floor awkwardly, failing to remain hidden because the lighting doesn’t shroud them before they pounce.

Though it needs work, the positives far outweigh the negatives. The story and the reality behind it are utterly compelling, and the weaving of poems throughout is artfully done—there are not enough great things I can say about the writing. Poe is brilliant, and the madness that he slips into is believable amidst the realistic circumstance in which the play is set. The entire ensemble of the show works together famously.

So if you want to learn about the reality of Poe’s last few days, or if you want to hear the fantasy of Poe’s last few days, Red-Eye is the show for you. It’s not for everyone, but maybe it’ll ring your Bells.

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