Theatre Downtown has launched into the Halloween season with an appropriately spooky and theatrically satisfying production of Poe, written by the Organic Theatre Co., directed by Frank Hilgenberg and starring John DiDonna as the ethereal, obsessed American man of letters, whose short stories and poems have chilled and titillated the reading public for generations.

Edgar Allen Poe lived a prolific and seminal life as an author, editor and cultural maven, but a tragic one as a man. He was orphaned young and then sent to live with a stern, unloving adoptive father, with whom he battled for money and recognition his whole life. He was an alcoholic and drug user, prone to fits of depression and melancholy. His marriage to an extremely underage cousin ended with her sickness and death. He himself died at 40, amid mysterious and violent circumstances.

The story of the play takes place in Poe's own feverish and troubled mind, in the time between his beating and abandonment in a Baltimore street in 1849 and his ultimate demise a few days later. (He never fully regained consciousness.) Some of the action is colored by the warped autobiographical language of Poe's own dreamscapes, and some by the text of his intensely psychological and imaginative writings. Snippets of his elegiac poetry share the stage with renderings of "The Cask of Amontillado" and "The Tell-Tale Heart," two of his best-known short stories.

As a Gothic thriller, Poe works just fine, mostly because it eschews the cheap stunts of modern horror entertainments – supernatural beings spewing blood and guts – hewing rather to the author's own predilections for paranoia, derangement, fear of death and general spiritual malaise. But the show also scores high as an otherworldly holiday treat because director Hilgenberg has judiciously applied the theatrical talents of music and sound creator Kevin G. Becker, choreographer Anna DeMers and lighting designer Aaron Babcock to give the production its moody and pervasively nightmarish atmosphere.

The ensemble cast surrounding DiDonna's agitated and alienated central character plays an assortment of roles superbly. Especially haunting is a macabre wedding dance in which society couples play hide and seek with Poe and his long-lost child bride, before all descends into a fierce and frightening sexually charged shivaree. Several individual performances are also enjoyable, including Jim Bruner's imperious John Allen (Poe's unforgiving "father") and Joe Comino's turns as Fortunato and Dupin, characters from Poe's fiction.

DiDonna is always an interesting actor to watch. Last season at the Studio Theater, he gave a grand and powerful performance as Oedipus Rex, the tragic monarch sliding inexorably into degradation. Here, his portrayal of Poe catches the intensity of the author's tortured and often chemically propelled mental state, but he misses some of the more brooding and quiescent variations of his melancholic behavior. Often, the character comes across as angry and loud, belying Franz Kafka's characterization of Poe as "a poor devil who had no defenses against the world."

Recently, while doing publicity for the play on WMFE-FM's The Arts Connection program, DiDonna read some of Poe's poetry aloud. The rich, doleful and plaintive voice he employed on the air was missing from the stage during his performance. Hasn't Poe taught us that the scariest stories are always told in the most hushed of tones?


Through Oct. 31
Theatre Downtown

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