Arts Emerson's "Red Eye to Havre de Grace ": Quoth the Raving...

"Red Eye to Havre de Grace"
(photo: Joanna Austin)

The current production in Arts Emerson's season, “Red Eye to Havre de Grace”, is a complex creation, presented by the Philadelphia-based companies known as Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental and Wilhelm Bros. & Co. An avant-garde musical, concert and/or ballet, it defies easy description or pigeon-holing. Neo-surrealist in tone, it has the multi-dimensional quality of cinema, the beauty and artistry of Poe’s poetry, and an other-worldly piano-based score that becomes as much a dark and funny mood piece as it is a work of theatre. This fulfills the aim of Arts Emerson, expressed by David Dower, Artistic Programs Director, namely presenting theater that is new, unlikely to be seen in our area other than when presented by Arts Emerson, and also international in nature (well, Philadelphia may not be that exotic). One fascinating aspect of this show is that Poe was born in Boston just a few blocks from Arts Emerson’s venue, the Paramount Theatre. The work begins with a humorous prologue by park ranger Steve (Jeremy Wilhelm), in charge of the Edgar Allen Poe House in Philadelphia. Poe (Ean Sheehy) lived there for six years during one of his most productive periods. Little is known about Poe’s mysterious last days: his boarding of a train in Richmond, Virginia, (the titular red eye to Havre de Grace, a city in Maryland) on September 27th, 1849 and his subsequent discovery on October 3rd, in a stranger’s clothes (straw hat, pajama top, and burlap pants), raving in a delirium. He died four days later in a hospital in Baltimore, having suffered a mental breakdown, possibly related to his addiction to both alcohol and laudanum.

Often broke, confused and habitually drunk, Poe has always been the subject of curiosity about the demons that plagued him throughout his brief and heartbreakingly driven life. He was often obsessed with theories about metaphysics as well as the origin of the universe. He viewed poetry and other writing as art for arts sake, entertainment as opposed to moral preaching. As he matured, he became more and more desperate to keep himself and his beloved aunt/mother-in-law “Muddy” from poverty. He had married Virginia (Sophie Bortolussi) when she was just thirteen, and she died of tuberculosis. Among his many works, the lesser-known “Eureka” (about the “termination of the annihilation of the universe”) is referenced, as well as Poe‘s views from the sublime, about being an artist in America, to the most ridiculous (“Philosophy of Furniture”), often in the form of hallucinations, as in the ghostly appearance of Virginia. If this sounds too far out and off-putting, it’s not. What it is, is funny, with incredible visuals of his claustrophobic universe, dealing with his demons. Poe had the habit of stretching out on a lawn inhaling the smell of grass in order to calm his spirit when he was becoming overly agitated, and even that provides a stunning entrance for Virginia, one memorable cinematic moment.

Designed and directed by Thadeus Phillips, created by him (with music by Jeremy and David Wilhelm of Wilhelm Bros. & Co. of Minneapolis) and performed by David Wilhelm, with Geoff Sobelle, Choreographer Sophie Bortolussi (who, as noted above, also plays Virginia), and creative consultant Teller (of Penn & Teller). The Lighting Design by Drew Billiau, Sound Design by Rob Kaplowitz, and Costume Design by Rosemarie McKelvey all contribute to the magical milieu, especially in the more creative second half of the production.

It’s not often we have the chance to experience theater on such an original, phenomenally creative level. As Poe himself said in one of his works that is probably very familiar to most of us, “we loved with a love that was more than love”; this could easily be said of the audience reaction to such an inventive work. More tellingly, Poe also said that he was “never really insane except upon occasions when (his) heart was touched”. Most theatergoers will be crazy about this ambitious and, in the strictest sense of the term, fabulous piece of theatre.

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