WHEN THE REST OF HEAVEN WAS BLUE
There's something collegiate about When the Rest of Heaven Was Blue, Theatre M's adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe short stories and poetry. Poe's works can seem amateurish, but that can't be the whole explanation. For beyond the doggerel of some of his poetry and the broad strokes with which he paints demented and delusional murderers is an insight so acute it seems the man must have been crazy, on drugs, or a genius. Theatre M unleashes some of that genius, but most of its multimedia approach is just good college-theater fare.
Director Max Macadam's adaptations of four Poe short stories are interspersed with clips from silent films and songs created from Poe's poetry. Liane LeMaster's melodies and Lori Anne Wagner's a cappella singing are equally sweet, but they detract from rather than add to Poe's writing. Often neither Poe's lyrics nor the music is particularly memorable, except for "Bridal Ballad To," in which the irony of the bride's voice can be clearly heard as Wagner sings a sprightly "And I am happy now."
Though any opportunity to see vintage silent films is to be relished, as a transitional device here they seem unnecessary. A clip from Faust introduces the theme of evil invading goodness repeated in the Poe stories that follow. In a clip from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Jekyll explains that others' cynicism had made him feel embarrassed for his goodness, a sentiment echoed in Poe's "The Black Cat." The clips are tied to Poe's work, but the common threads in his writing already link the four comic and horror stories presented. It's not necessary to pull from outside sources, thereby weakening the production's focus on Poe.
Randall Stanton's thrilling delivery of Poe's comic tale "Loss of Breath" confirmed the notion that this literature can inspire great theater on its own. The beauty of the monologue form is the way words and voice can combine to produce a vivid story without the aid of costumes or sets--or video. If Macadam had concentrated less on creating a "new" approach to Poe, is it possible he'd have gotten as much from the other actors' performances as he got from Stanton?
Stanton jolts the audience, running in from offstage screaming "Shrew!" Alone on the stage, he reenacts the character's stranglehold on his wife without looking like he's wrestling the air. "Hands around her throat . . . lips near her ear . . . I lost my breath." From this point Poe and Stanton take us on a metaphorical journey. The narrator describes how he ran away because he had no breath and no words with which to chastise his unfaithful wife. Among the absurdly funny calamities that befall him, he is repeatedly mistaken for dead--a mirror placed in front of his mouth won't fog up--and ends up in a mausoleum still alive.
Though "The Angel of the Odd" offers a similarly fantastic ride, Macadam doesn't adapt or direct it as tightly. The storyteller (Matt Kozlowski) relates how, reading a newspaper one afternoon, he complained to himself that so many "odd accidents" reported are merely hoaxes invented for a gullible public. Enter the cantankerous Angel of the Odd, seeking revenge against the disbeliever. As the narrator, Kozlowski's speech is hurried and overexcited--he doesn't seem like a man in the midst of an extraordinary scenario or someone describing it after the fact.
As the homicidal narrator of "The Black Cat," Marc A. Nelson exhibits a greater ability to hold back. Revealing frustration gradually, he quietly explains that throughout his life his pets' friendship has meant more to him than the "gossamer fidelity of mere man." Like Poe's words, Nelson is sweet on the surface but with a hint of malice underneath. As malice grows to rage and then to murder, Nelson's mannerisms become more pronounced--he snaps his chains and looks offstage as if he were being watched--matching Poe's thickly gothic style. But as the murderer becomes ghoulish and paranoid, Nelson also maintains a boyish remorse, which keeps the portrait from becoming total caricature.
Poe's characters often half-blame their behavior or delusions on alcohol, but in "Berenice" the narrator links his demise with the library and the "peculiar nature of its contents": it's Poe's genius to make us feel the dark burden of a life steeped in learning. Ian Barford lays it on thick as the gray and sickly narrator--but only as thick as Poe, who shrouds the character in a nonspecific illness and a suffocatingly gloomy atmosphere. The best facet of this piece, and the point at which Barford takes hold of it, is the narrator's obsession with, of all things, his beloved's teeth. Though Berenice is first described as hardy and robust she's grown emaciated due to epilepsy, but her teeth still entice: "excessively white, with the pale lips writhing about them."
Though the five cast members perform alone, each manages to animate his or her work physically by utilizing the large, mostly bare stage and three staircases. But Macadam goes too far in the opening, when Wagner sings from the balcony and walks down the stairs, making it difficult to see her; in addition, on opening night she had to compete with the clanking pipes of a deficient heating system. The unintentionally frigid air may have added to the gothic mood, but like the videos and the music it too distracted from the merits of the work and the performances.