Monday, January 25, 2010

Jeffrey Combs as Poe in NEVERMORE

The 2010 Poe Birthday was extra-special. Instead of the usual assortment of acts, we had the east coast premiere of NEVERMORE, a one-man show starring Jeffrey Combs as Poe, and directed by Stuart Gordon, that genre stalwart who has given us such films as RE-ANIMATOR and FROM BEYOND and DAGON (and some stuff for Disney, but we'll forgive him that. For now.).

Written by Dennis Paoli (a professor of Gothic lit at Hunter College, and an accomplished screenwriter who frequently collaborates with Gordon, a natural given that they're life-long friends), NEVERMORE's stated goal is to recreate one of the public recitals that Poe gave in the last few years of his life, after the death of his wife Virginia. Combs, as Poe, steps on the stage, and flamboyantly announces that he'll be reading his most famous poem, without further delay...then delays and delays, reading other poems, reciting one of the stories, taking sips from a flask, calling on salutes to his then-fiancee Sarah Helen Whitman, getting more and more agitated and's really a chronicle of a public breakdown.

Except...well...that sort of thing never happened. Yes, Poe had a problem with alcohol, except he couldn't really be described as an alcoholic. It's been theorized that he had an allergy to alcohol, and that even a small drink could result in him blacking out. Poe would never have drunk from a flask on stage. And Combs plays Poe with a Southern accent...which is not historical. Poe spoke very proper English, partly because being a Southerner would have resulted in him being dismissed by the literary establishment he sought so much to become a part of. My friend, actor/director/Poe scholar Dave Spitzer, and I were both puzzled by the Southern accent, not to mention a few other aspects of the show.

The show's flaws are softened when you stop thinking of it as a re-creation of one of his public recitals, and instead as a symbolic psychodrama of Poe's tortured inner life. In that respect, it's a great representation of how Poe was simultaneously self-aggrandizing and self-sabotaging. We see his tortured relationship with alcohol, his feelings of loss for Virginia, his genius with poetry and prose...but also his bitterness toward literary rival Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (which also was hypocritical; Poe lambasted Longfellow for courting a wealthy widow when that's what he did himself after Virginia's death), and his inability...or let go of Virginia.

And some other flaws were a result of my own bias. During the show, Combs/Poe recites "The Tell-Tale Heart," a story that I am extremely tired of hearing. Sometimes it seems that every damned Poe impersonator has to use that in his repertoire, and probably as the only work to rely on. And sure, it's a great tale for showing off an actor's chops as he recites the murderer's confession. But's overdone. I'm tired of it. Let's do another tale, can we?

Comb's Poe also goes waaaay over the top in his recitations, partly with the drink and partly carried away by his own opinion of himself, so much so that a few times I found myself tuning out of his wild cadenzas. Horrible thing to admit, I'm sure. But it did get fascinating during the drunken recital of "The Bells" that ends up being a train wreck.

After an emotional blow, Poe finally, finally recites "The Raven," and then closes intoning that all is "a dream within a dream" as the lights go down and all we see is his face, limned by a single candle. It's an effectively eerie closer.

Despite a few problems, it was very well-acted by Combs, who shows himself an actor of true range and versatility. And as Dave pointed out, the stagecraft is excellent, with Combs making full use of the space and not being bound by it.

Gordon and Combs did a Q&A after the show, which got interesting. There were a few questions ranging from the thoughtful to the frivolous, but one lady seemed to be quite irate and upset at how she felt the show denigrated Poe's genius, and objected to any depiction of Poe having a problem with alcohol (umm, lady, it's documented and known), and seemed to regard the show as an insult. She voiced her objections, but seemed more interested in ranting, to the point that a lady near me called out, "Is there a question?" that put an end to it. I heard her talking to a friend as folks were walking out; she sounded as if she were close to tears. She really seemed to be taking this to heart.

To be fair, I can see where she's coming from. But as much of a genius that Poe was, he was also a human being, and a deeply flawed one. He had many problems and probably quite a bit of his genius came from those problems, and to turn away from those problems is to deny ourselves a true appreciation of his genius. It's an old debate, how personal torment can fuel genius. I once saw someone wonder if the Brontë children wouldn't have had better lives if they'd had therapy...but could they have produced such wonderful literature?

Also in the show...

Poe Museum director Jeff Jerome spoke briefly about the Poe Toaster. Nobody has any idea why he hasn't shown up this year, but the best theory is that after the Poe Bicentennial last year, he's decided to hang up his cloak. That's something that occurred to me as well. They'll wait until next year, and if he skips 2011 as well, they'll give up on him.

I also got to see with my own eyes the famous watercolor portrait, and got an earful from the owner's wife. It seems it was purchased as part of a large lot of old prints, and cost pennies, because the auctioneer had no idea what it was worth. It's simply gorgeous, delicate yet vibrant, in a way that online reproductions can't duplicate.

It was a pleasant afternoon. I caught the Sunday show, as I had obligations Saturday night (ushering at a performance of the Washington Ballet, and then hastening to see some friends performing in a burlesque show). NEVERMORE is to tour this year, although no schedule has been finalized. If it turns up in your area, look into it. Despite its flaws, it's worth it.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this wonderful review. I caught the show here in L.A. a few times and really enjoyed it. I was fascinated by your remarks about how Combs portrayed Poe, especially since it was performed mere feet from Mr. Poe's final resting place.

I had a friend there on Sunday who told me that woman during the Q&A was the talk of everyone! Perhaps she didn't read the interview with Mr. Combs when he stated he was playing Poe, "warts and all"? :)

Anonymous said...

Maybe the woman did or didn't see the "warts and all" comment but why make fun of her if she had an honest objection about the show?

I can see her viewpoint. Poe never appeared on stage drunk. This was the imagination of the writer.

She had a valid objection and shouldn't be scorned for it.

And if I remember correctly there were people in the audience who agreed with her.

Vagrarian said... I said, she had a valid point, similar to some of the objections I had with the play. But if memory serves, she did say that the stories of Poe's drinking were the result of Griswold and other postmortem rumormongers, and that's simply not true. It has been documented that Poe had trouble with alcohol. (Maybe she was aware of that, but was so worked up she misspoke...I have no idea.) I was a little taken aback at how vehement she was, as if she was taking it all personally, and seemed prepared to spend the evening haranguing Gordon and Combs about the play, which would not have been pleasant.

Anonymous said...

I'm a bit late to the party on this article, so it's very possible that no one will ever read this comment(unless they stumble upon this page as I did). I would just like to say you wrote an interesting review, & I would have loved to have been there for the show. My one quarrel is that you say that Poe didn't speak with a southern accent, but I have read numerous articles about the man on the internet by Poe scholars who say that he definitely did speak with a southern accent. Some say it was minor, but still noticeable. And that makes sense to me, given that he grew up in Virginia. I don't know for sure, obviously, but you can search the web yourself & see all the articles stating that he had a southern accent. Just google the following: EDGAR ALLAN POE SPOKE WITH A SOUTHERN ACCENT. Regardless, you gave an entertaining review.

Anonymous said...

Entertaining review. But there is a plethora of articles on the web by Poe scholars, fans, etc stating that he did indeed speak with a southern accent. Some say it was a slight southern drawl, but noticeable for sure. And that makes sense to me considering that he grew up in Virginia. You can check it out yourself. Just Google the following: DID EDGAR ALLAN POE SPEAK WITH A SOUTHERN ACCENT. That brought up a bunch of pages for me. Regardless, solid review.

Vagrarian said...

In all honesty, I've forgotten the source I got my info from, possibly a biography or some other material. Probably also relying on talk from acquaintances who were Poe experts themselves, so I'm sorry, I can't source my info. And there's always a possibility that I'm wrong about that.