City Paper is not for tourists.
I have to say I’m of two minds about Nevermore, the Edgar Allan Poetry musical that premiered this weekend at the Signature Theatre. Part of me wants to exult in the eerie atmospherics director Eric Schaeffer and his designers have lavished on their fever dream of a biomusical—wind howling in the lobby, gnarled Tim Burton–esque trees curling menacingly toward the actors—while pretending that the overexplanatory script isn’t fighting the mood at every turn.
Another part of me just wants the overexplanatory script to be clearer about what it’s overexplaining. The details come across just fine in the impressionistic swirl of a show composer Matt Conner and librettist Grace Barnes have built from Poe’s fiction and poetry and snippets of biographical data. It’s the rationale behind the swirling that’s harder to pin down. The creators appear not to have decided whether they’d prefer to make an audience’s flesh creep with text-based insights into an author whose life and death are shrouded in mystery, or to make viewers thrill to a sweeping theatrical tone poem that illuminates Poe’s words as if by flashes of lightning.
The show begins with just such a flash, followed by a clap of thunder and a moody ballad about solitude delivered by a deathly pale, hallucinating Poe (Daniel Cooney). This teller of Gothic tales about doom-predicting ravens, flesh-eating plagues, and slashing pendulums is tormented by boozy memories of women, five of whom materialize from the shadows to enliven his delirium.
They’re a diverse bunch of harpies. Virginia (Lauren Williams), the ringletted first cousin Poe married when she was 13, spends much of her time begging him to tell her scary bedtime stories, while Muddy (Channez McQuay), the stern aunt who ended up both mothering and mother-in-law-ing him, looks on disapprovingly. Elmira (Jacquelyn Piro), the childhood first love to whom Poe gravitated after his young bride died, is also on hand, looking sepulchral with her head half-shaved. Also circling the author is a stiletto-heeled whore (Amy McWilliams), representing all but one of the other women in the author’s life. The one she can’t supplant in Poe’s memory is his cackling, caustic mother (Florence Lacey), who died when her son was 3 and who remains (at least in this recounting) both his constant inspiration and his most reliable scold. “I hate you for leaving,” a despondent Poe tells her, only to be dismissed with a blithe “If I had stayed, what would you write about?”
Now, there’s admittedly a certain fascination to be found in psychobiography. The man who titled verses “To My Mother” and “Alone” might have been employing the same artistic license in penning those as he did in writing “The Pit and the Pendulum.” But shouldn’t we still be able to intuit his views about the real world from what he wrote as fantasy? “Bridal Ballad,” written seven years after his own marriage and filled with a young girl’s foreboding about her wedding night, surely offers hints of the writer’s personal experience of marital bliss. Look at the artist’s life through his work, and both will be enhanced—or at any rate, that’s the idea the script promotes, sometimes in such flatfooted lines as “I hear voices, a cacophony in my head” and “Tell me a story, husband—scare me,” but mostly by placing Poe’s more graceful versifying in a real-life context.
Note that this is not quite the same as examining an artist’s struggle to create, the trick behind Signature’s recent musicals about Georges Seurat (Sunday in the Park With George) and Vincent van Gogh (The Highest Yellow). Those shows used music and narrative to illuminate their protagonists’ art. Nevermore turns that approach on its head, using Poe’s art, as lyrics and dialogue, to illuminate its narrative. The method is not unlike the one that animates Cats, and although Nevermore has been thought through more cogently and executed with more purpose than that T.S. Eliot extravaganza, it ends up feeling similarly amorphous, with songs reinforcing ambience rather than springing from plot or character.
The performers, in other words, have their work cut out for them if they want to create full-bodied people on stage. Cooney’s perpetually misty-eyed Poe gets whipsawed from mother to girlfriend to whore, and he’s always distressed at what each of them isn’t offering. Like the rest of the characters, he’s defined less by what he says or sings than by how he reacts. Mother figures intimidate him, wives and girlfriends initially entrance but eventually enrage him, and the whole world disappoints him. Cooney has a bracingly clear voice that cuts through his character’s overarching gloom. Crisp vocals also abet Williams’ innocently chirpy, amusingly bloodthirsty virgin bride. She works herself into an orgasmic frenzy to Poe’s macabre stories before marriage, then gives up her maidenhead on their wedding night with a scream that cuts through a violent hymn.
Lacey makes Poe’s acerbic mother a jealous, matronly flirt (oddly, given that the real-life Elizabeth Poe died in her early 20s), attired in a gown that seems composed of overlapping handkerchiefs, while McQuay plays the writer’s substitute mom as a model of rectitude and resignation poured into tight tailoring. Piro’s spunky Elmira makes the most of just a few lines establishing that she’s Poe’s last chance to evade loneliness, depression, and madness. And McWilliams’ whore offers more down-to-earth solace with even fewer words, belting out the chorus of her big number, “El Dorado,” while mounting and then furiously humping a seated Poe, whose guttural moans indicate that he’s climaxing just as the song does.
Schaeffer’s hypnotic, ever-in-motion staging takes them all through a series of frenzies and decorative lulls, filling downtime with unexplained, intriguingly disturbing images. One character carries a bundle of ebony forearms as if they were a funeral bouquet, and disembodied, blackened hands hang from trees or drop from the rafters to offer tattered umbrellas. Indeed, it would be hard to overstate the strength of the design work Schaeffer has inspired: Lighting designer Mark Lanks shoots lightning down tree limbs and scrawls poetry on the floorboards. Jenn Miller outfits characters in asymmetrical, wine-red and purple costumes echoed by the deep-maroon paper on which Poe scribbles his poems. Along with “scenic consultant” Derek McLane, they’ve helped the director craft an environment that’s spookier than a haunted mansion.
Conner’s melodies are what inspired Signature to spend two years developing Nevermore for the stage, and they’re dark, lush, and swooningly romantic as orchestrated by frequent Sondheim collaborator Jonathan Tunick. Poe’s words sit nicely on them, even when their meaning isn’t immediately clear. I wrote down, and still don’t quite know what to make of, “There is a twofold silence/Sea and shore/Body and soul.” As poetry, that works nicely, but in context? Well, Poe is very nearly in extremis by the time this lyric is crooned, and no one has been particularly quiet for quite a while. A crib sheet provided in the press packet indicates that Elmira is telling him that she understands he’s slipping into madness, and I suppose I sort of got that during the performance—but not because it was being communicated verbally. In the song, the phrase is repeated and repeated, with increasing intensity, and I finally decided just to let it wash over me, the way nonsense lyrics do in a Cirque du Soleil spectacle. The ambience is heady, the emotions persuasive enough that, at that moment, the words don’t really matter. But doesn’t that seem an odd thing to say of a show built to showcase poetry?CP