The Underground Collaborative plays host to an interesting stage exploration into the works of Edgar Allen Poe. A version of The Tell-Tale Heart and the Mind of Poe debuted in 2007 with Virginia’s Endstation Theatre Company. The adaptation renders various first-person narratives from the works of Poe as characters in a psych ward. Company of Strangers brings a modification of the adaptation into the basement of the Grand Avenue Mall this month as it presents a tightly-unraveled, little staging of the show that runs roughly 1 hour and 15 minutes.
The Mood As You Enter
Walk into the space as the entire cast is there. Onstage and off. Milling about. There’s a twitchy restlessness about them all. They’re pacing and crawling around and muttering to themselves. It’s a very slow metabolism about the place. Listless madness flows in and around a very moody atmosphere. The mood coats the tiny basement space. In an atmosphere like that, everyone seems a little crazy. Even people not directly involved in the production: the girl behind the bar, the rest of the audience, the person you came there with...everyone is suffering from demons of some sort.
It’s a diverse cast we meet as we enter. Mary Chuy clings to a baby doll she cradles in her arms. Later-on her maternalism fractures with “A Dream Within A Dream,” which ends the show. Esther Obain reaches out to the graffiti on the wall to embrace it. Later-on she performs the poem “Dreams,” with compelling passion. Rebecca Janny seems somewhat obsessed with the whitenesses of teeth, so it’s no surprise that she’s bringing Poe’s short story "Berenice" to the stage. Sarah Ann Mellström (always a captivating addition to an ensemble like this) slides across the stage in strangely compelling sensitivities. She taps here and there with fingers across various surfaces searching for no earthly percussion. She speaks through Poe’s “Alone,” with memories of childhood. Her hands later find a drum to tap out the rhythm of “The Telltale Heart,” as performed with cleverly aesthetic modulation by Race Rohde.
The modulation isn’t always strong, though...Poe performed as madness doesn’t have the kind of variety the would make for a very dramatically textured show. To their credit, the cast doesn’t try to reach into a garish spectrum of different mentally ill affectations. It all feels very well-grounded. And since the runtime of the show is only just over an hour, the mood is carried quite well and is never given enough time to feel stale.
The Concept Works
Atmosphere aside, on a fundamental level The Tell-Tale Heart and the Mind of Poe is a recitation of Poe. Pure and simple. The rest of what’s going on in and around the edges cast it all in an interesting light but at its heart, this is a high-concept reading of Poe’s work. And it works. Each character in the cast represents almost a kind of psychotic personification of a different piece. So much of Poe’s fiction and narrative poetry is written from a first-person perspective. There are in-depth descriptions of each character in the program. Some of them are incredibly in-depth. Little 200 to 400-word sketches and analyses that inform on the performance. It would really amplify the experience to get-in early enough to read about the characters as they’re milling about prior to the show. Each of the 12 stories are analyzed and represented by characters in the cast. Between the text and the performance, there’s an opportunity for a really deep analysis of the text for those willing to really dive into it.
So...When are We Again?
The show imagines the Poe-based criminal psychotics all sharing space in the same Victorian-style psych ward with all of the restlessness that goes along with it. The costuming (which features contemporary scrubs and patient ID bands) and set design (which has the back walls covered in graffiti) suggest an altogether more contemporary setting. This feels a bit weird. Psychopharmacology has transformed contemporary mental institutions. It’s a much more static and dreamy space thanks to the wonders of modern medicine. (I remember a psych professor at UWM telling the story of visiting just such a place when psychotropic medications were first being introduced. He asked a nurse working the ward if the medicines really worked. She pointed at the curtains. She said that you could never keep the curtains on the windows before. With the drugs it wasn’t a problem. Things were so much more sedate than they had been.)
So it’s a bit disturbing to have a Victorian psych ward atmosphere in a modern psych ward atmosphere. Brian Lorenzo Pena plays a very charismatic Doctor who is described as being on “a quest for knowledge to the point of idolatry.” This would suggest a willingness to try out non-chemical forms of therapy even in those who could potentially hurt themselves (or anyone visiting in the audience within the context of the play.)
The nontraditional therapy angle on the character of the Doctor suggests a possible meta-story going on in which the characters aren’t reciting the narratives as personal experiences, but in actuality are being given different texts from Poe to identify with as a form of therapy being performed for the audience. And then maybe there’s enough around the edges of the introduction to suggest that the “Secretery” played by Julia Marsan is the REAL clinician here and she’s merely allowing one more psychotic the opportunity for therapy by way of allowing him to act as Doctor.
Company of Strangers has developed an explicit enough environment to form a moody backbone for Poe’s work. What an audience decides that it is will likely be something they bring-in with them. It's ambiguous enough to invite fun, little speculations and analyses long after the show has ended.
This Poe is a search for meaning along the fringes of mental health. It’s not meant to be a true exploration of mental illness any more than Poe’s work was. It’s a metaphysical descent into madness from which interesting insights might arise. Once again Company of Strangers presents a brief, thought-provoking evening of simple theatre on an intimate stage.
Company of Strangers’ production of The Tell-Tale Heart and the Mind of Poe runs through Jul. 21 at the Underground Collaborative on 161 W. Wisconsin Ave. For ticket reservations, visit Company of Strangers online.
Here's a promo video for the show: