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Things only ever get worse for poor Edgar (later Allan) Poe, the hapless lad at the black heart of Nevermore: a grim musical biopic of the great American chronicler of all things macabre. The orphaned son of an alcoholic father and a self-obsessed actress mother, Edgar hopes against hope his “fortunes will reverse.” But they keep on falling: as every single parental figure and friend Edgar manages to trust goes crazy, vanishes, or dies of tuberculosis.
It is a testament to the weird, Gothic power of Nevermore that such misery is rendered at once consistently entertaining and serious enough for the unlucky Edgar to warrant our sympathy. Lost love – maternal, fraternal, and romantic – a horrific foster father, the betrayal of a literary rival, and more earthly disappointments take on, in Nevermore, a decidedly otherworldly pall. What starts out as an eerie biopic (as a group of mysterious strangers an adult Edgar meets on board a steamer starts to – in an admittedly contrived fashion – “act out” his life story) becomes a meandering insight into the childhood nightmares and deep-seated traumas that inspired the like of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and more.
The design (courtesy of Bretta Gerecke), is intensely non-linear and dream-like – an effective choice – although the “Edwardian horror” aesthetic often seems to have more in common with Lewis Carroll and Edward Gorey than the more clinical, neurasthenic feel of Poe’s own works. Sometimes, this works splendidly (as when characters drink out of oversized teapots, complete with booming slurping sound effects). At other times, the production can start to feel a bit too indulgently in love with its steampunk aesthetic (Edgar’s punk mohawk comes to mind).
At its best, Nevermore is a glimpse into the terrors of the human heart: terrors that do not require swinging blades or lurking monsters to be effective. The most disturbing – and effective – moment in the whole production is to be found not among the undead corpses and shrieking skulls, but in a casual moment of childhood cruelty: where neighborhood bullies do unspeakably tortuous things to Edgar’s pet mouse. The actions are described only, the mouse unseen, but the moment is a powerful – and even horrifying – reminder of what a few well-chosen words can do to fill us with suitably “exquisite horror”
As Edgar himself, Scott Shpeley remains a bruised and battered child well into adulthood: wide-eyed (gobs of eyeliner are used to good advantage here) and perpetually on the verge of trembling tears. Often called upon to do little but respond to the strangeness around him, Shpeley is fantastically watchable: grounding the phantasmagoric strangeness of Nevermore in emotional reality.
Also a standout is Beth Graham (like everyone but Shpeley, she plays many roles), particularly as Fanny Allan: Edgar’s foster mother, whose lighthearted hysterics take on an ever more sinister turn.
Yet, for all its good qualities, Nevermore still feels strangely uneven. Much of this is down to the book (by Jonathan Christenson, who also wrote the music and directed). Nevermore is told in a childlike, sing-song rhyme that parallels some of Poe’s own poetry, but the rhymes border on the workmanlike. When Poe’s own infinitely more complex language breaks onto the scene – as in a “mashup” of “The Raven” (it had to be in there, somewhere) and “Lenore”, easily Nevermore’s crowning moment – the contrast becomes all too obvious. The music, too, can border on the repetitive, although individual songs, including “The Raven” and the first-act closer, are especially memorable. Faring better is the dancing (choreographed by Laura Krewski). Characters write, tremble, cower, or stretch out longingly – often with relatively little space to move– yet every movement feels perfectly crafted and emotionally specific; often, it feels we learn more about Edgar from the way he touches his beloved Elmira’s hand than from the often cloying narration. And for a show whose subtitle promises us information about the “Mysterious Death” of Edgar Allan Poe, we get surprisingly little coverage of the mystery of Poe’s still-unaccounted-for last days. (What happened to his clothes? And who the hell is Reynolds, anyway?)
That said, however, Nevermore is a wildly exciting production; even its flaws are intensely interesting – when they occur, they come across as ambitious misfires, borne of a refusal to play it safe. The cast and crew of Nevermore – like the tortured genius whose story they tell – are willing to go beyond the bounds of what is expected. And that makes Nevermore, like Edgar, feel truly, satisfyingly, dangerous.
Tara Isabella Burton
Tara Isabella Burton is the Arts Editor at Litro NY. You can find her writing at National Geographic, Al Jazeera America, The Atlantic, and more.