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February 25, 2005

Orchestra, torture devices invigorate UT's Poe

Tired that horror has degenerated to nothing but zombies, aliens, and psychotic serial killers with Oedipal complexes? Then visit UT this weekend, sit back, and get your psyche on edge with Edgar Allen Poe.

The 19th-century writer is best known for concentrating on the evil that lurks within humanity; it's not any external, contrived device (i.e. zombies), but the characters' own psychological guilt that unavoidably leads to their demise. It's the dark undercurrent of men's souls that Poe effortlessly captured in his works, and Caitlin Doughty and her apt cast and crew translate into Poe, the latest UT production.

Adapted by Doughty herself from some of Poe's poems and short stories, the play wisely focuses on Poe's skepticism of science and technology back in the 19th century. One character would randomly promote the advances of technology, while the visual images unfolding onstage proved otherwise. While this leaves out ravens and crumbling houses of Usher, it still potently breeds an impeding sense of doom in the characters—particularly since they have unleashed the evils of science and technology on themselves.

This hour-long macabre odyssey uses Meredith Ries's imaginatively creepy, Burton-esque set to act out its ghoulish tales, with vials of strange elixirs and eccentric knick-knacks cluttered around. My compliments also go to the creation of the "all-purpose table"—a valuable prop piece that served as a coffin, an operation table, and a rack to torture prisoners of the Inquisition. Every home should have one.

With their stiff Victorian garb and even stiffer Victorian manners, the ensemble cast (Thomas Bullock, Burke Butler, Christian Doll, Angeline Gragasin, Chris Martin, Michael Stevens, and Mark Winston) shined in various roles, conveying just the right mixture of nervousness and fatalism. Everyone seemed aware that at least one other character was not going to come out alive by the end of the scene.

The entire show was very well organized. I didn't even realize it was a dress rehearsal until the end of the show. The actors worked professionally, moving chairs, props, and corpses offstage during transitions.

It is acquiescence to the inevitability of death that plagues the characters' souls—and ours—and each actor understood this down to the bone. Best example: "The Pit and the Pendulum" (a scene without dialogue or an actual pendulum). It is the suspense and anticipation as the prisoner painfully watches his fate swing closer that drives deep into our fears. Though Doughty says in her notes that her aim was to be reverent to 19th century America, the blatant torture of the prisoner by his captors parallels certain claims of prisoner abuse at a military confine in Iraq. Who knew the Inquisition had so much in common with the war on terror?

And though Poe is usually bleak, many actors played on the ironic humor found in his works. Some noteworthy performances include UT stalwart Martin channeling Dr. Strangelove (complete with wheelchair and German accent) as an unethical doctor in "The Strange Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," properly creepy Winston as the mad treasure hunter Legrand in "The Gold Bug," and Butler as the doomed storyteller in "The Thousand and Second Tale of Scheherazade."

One key ingredient of Poe was the small orchestral ensemble, a great concept. It was the orchestra's performance that amplified the evening's sinister mood. Their cacophonous sound—especially ominous during the recitation of "The Bells"—added more to the feeling of discomfort and sorrow, or served to intensify the eeriness through random, disjointed sounds. Doughty peppered other visual effects, such as slides and projectors, through the production. While I didn't see these as necessary, they did add to the creepiness.

I can't say this was the scariest, most bone chilling show I've seen. But I left with some pervading awareness of the dark corners of my soul. If this perversity is what the cast and crew of Poe were going for, I think they fully succeeded. And now, I have to go confess my sins.