“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore–
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.” (The Raven, ll. 1-4)
The author of these harrowing lines, Edgar Allen Poe, has a new more playful conduit to the modern world – Thaddeus Phillips’ latest work, Red-Eye to Havre de Grace. Regardless of how you categorize it, the play/ballet/concert is deeply evocative and darkly humorous, giving tribute to the artist without pushing its audience over the brink. The performance focuses on the last few days of E.A.’s too-short life, a subject that continues to invite speculation to this day. We know that on September 27, 1849, Poe departed Richmond, VA on the first leg of a train to New York City. We do not know his whereabouts for a week, until he surfaced in Havre de Grace, Maryland, on Oct. 3, apparently in a state of dishevelment beyond understanding or reason. He died on Oct. 7. The play attempts to imaginatively reconstruct the chain of events/drugs/hallucinations that led a distinguished scholar and poet to his death.
Hallucinations came in the form of ghostly Sophie Bortolussi, a choreographer/dancer who plays the role of Poe’s deceased cousin and wife, Virginia. E.A. married her at the not-quite-ripe age of 13, so it is a matter of mere karma that she haunts him with diabolical intent. Bortolussi — pale, lithe, and adolescent — never says a word but manages to express the spectrum of Virginia’s emotions with knife-like precision. What begins as childish play and curiosity passes gently through impulsiveness, to impishness and finally to mania and homicidal fury. Even more rarified are the witty, innovative, and entertaining nuances of scene “deployment.” I say deployment, because the actors, themselves, interact with the set as both actors and stagehands, alternating seamlessly between the two roles. E.A. speaks with a conductor briefly through a small window in a train door. E.A. leaves the train, and the doorway is turned on its side to become a hotel’s greeting table. When the hotel manager escorts Poe to his room, the table is rotated, walked on, twisted, opened, and so on a number of times, describing a space that seems more like a labyrinthine castle than an hotel.
Later, the window in the door is opened again, but this time by ghost Virginia, breaking a seam in reality just large enough for her slim, dead waist to shinny through, just large enough for the anemic E.A. Poe (Ean Sheeny) to use as though playing a game of hide-and-seek. Once their positions are reversed, the window is closed, becoming the iron bars of Poe’s transcendental jail cell. Red-Eye to Havre de Grace is the result of multidisciplinary collaboration between Live Arts Festival veterans and numerous outside contributors. In addition to Thaddeus Phillips and Geoff Sobelle, who have contributed ideas and work to Philadelphia for over a decade, musicians Jeremy/David Wilhelm and dancer Sophie Bortolussi were also brought in. What results is a thought-provoking piece that has the multi-dimensionality of film and the depth of poetry. The experience was completely engrossing to both the theorist and human in me. If I were slightly more arrogant, I would throw neo-surrealism out there and let you figure out what that even means. And yes, for all the goths out there, The Raven is quoth in full. And yes, for everyone else, this is miraculously unpainful and even hilarious. Do not ask how they did it. Go then and make your visit. — BRANDON LAFVING