Lexington Children's Theatre's production of The Tales of Edgar Allen Poe is a sumptuously dark, imaginative descent into the mind and works of the late Romantic writer, who pioneered a genre of macabre storytelling that continues to haunt readers today.
Inspired by a handful of Poe's most notable works, LCT leaders Larry and Vivian Snipes' adaptation for the stage weaves biography with fiction, as scenes from Poe's deathbed mix with the writer's memories, which reveal real-life circumstances that influenced the stories he wrote.
The play opens with Poe's impending death. History agrees that he was found face-down in a gutter, but otherwise his death at age 40 has been attributed to a variety of causes: alcohol, rabies, tuberculosis, drugs, cholera and then some.
After two characters discover Poe unconscious in the street, they take him to a hospital, where his life flashes before his eyes. It is within this flash that the bulk of the play takes place and the audience is treated to foggy, atmospheric twists and turns of Poe's mind.
Bits of biography — Poe's struggle with financing college, a romance that ended in his wife's death from tuberculosis — are mixed with enactments of short stories — The Tell-Tale Heart, The Fall of the House of Usher and The Cask of Amontillado — and what might be his most famous work, the poem The Raven.
Director Vivian Snipes does a masterful job braiding the strands of Poe's life and work into a cohesive experience that feels like a memory ought to — a bit disjointed yet fluid, non-chronological yet occasionally linear, with symbolism and characters leaking from real life into an imaginary one and back again.
At first, it took Friday morning's audience (a slightly older-than-the usual crowd, no doubt due to the darker subject matter) and me a few minutes to adjust to the unconventional format. Taking a cue from the script, which describes the dying Poe as experiencing dreams within dreams, not to mention clear character changes by the actors (which are elegantly underscored by Eric Abele's costuming), we began to understand what was going on. We are watching several beginnings, several middles and then several ends all framed by Poe's death.
The premise is complex, yes, but in Snipes' hands, it is not unwieldy. Highly intricate and fluid choreography of blocking and scene changes gives the production an almost dance-like feel.
A four-person ensemble plays multiple characters; Jim Short, Brianna Case, Matthew Bass and Michael Whitten each deserve particular praise for the transitional moments between characters. There are moments, particularly with Case, when the performer is almost both characters, a subtle but powerful way to underscore the link between Poe's creative work and his real life.
The only hiccup in the production occurred early in the show, during a scene from the opening of The Cask of Amontillado, when the sounds of carnival revelry briefly overshadowed the story's narration, making me miss a few key sentences.
Kenneth Foster's scenic and lighting design worked elegantly in tandem with the performers, with innovative set changes and carefully selected lighting cues, along with the requisite fog machine, creating a dark, dreary, delightfully macabre ambience.