The work of Edgar Allan Poe has a shadowy universality. The intellectual heart of ubiquitous human darkness is vividly rendered through his prose. The Sunset Playhouse brings some of that darkness to the stage this weekend as it presents Phantasies Such As These—a dramatic studio theatre reading adapted for the stage by Michael Pocaro.
The stage has a few chairs and a few candles. There are cavities in the brick walls and pictures in the gilded frames. A cast of six read the prose from tan scripts on the intimate studio theatre space next door to Sunset’s main stage. Six stories resonate through six actors.
The first is Hop Frog. A slyly angular Brandon Haut plays the title character—a jester who takes his revenge on royalty in a dramatic combustion. The story has many of the cast playing the doomed royalty in fixed roles, but much of the staging is a mix as each actor tales a turn speaking as Poe’s protagonist in The Tell Tale Heart and The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar. Each actor carries a different strength into the darkness. Michael Chobanoff is a powerfully charismatic presence onstage. Chobanoff walks a line between politician and stage magician in his delivery of the prose. Calmly restless Jim Donaldson plays best to a tortured neurotic quality echoing through Poe’s work. Donaldson wields the weaknesses of Poe’s protagonists like a weapon at times. With a stage presence that suggests wisdom, Hal Erickson is the afflicted decay of age from within and without both psychologically and physiologically. Anna Murray has a crisp precision about her emotion in the narration that makes the drama of her manifestation feel like a mystery hidden in plain sight. Natasha Mortazavi is the voice of levelheaded narrative detachment tempered by clarity of morality. There’s a casual wonder in her narration that adds a sort of grounded framework to the ensemble.
Nearly every story passes from one character to the next from paragraph to paragraph. We often end up seeing the same protagonists speaking in first person through all six on stage. Far from being disorienting or detracting from the overall experience of the show, the multi-actor narration actually serves to echo the universality of Poe’s psychological explorations. One imagines the same motives and the same actions and the same consequences playing out in murder, cruelty and suffering in many different people over and over again echoing back to the beginning of time. We’re all the same and so we’re all subject to the same haunted pettiness that animates so many first-person narratives penned by Poe.
Three stories open. There is an intermission. Three more stories close. The procession begins with Hop Frog and ends with The Raven. Revenge is followed by a couple tales of murder. Then a story of an obsessed artist, a cat and that famous raven. It’s a nice progression that ends with the classic for which Poe is best-known.
It's a one-weekend show for Halloween weekend. There are two performances left of Phantasies Such As These: Oct. 28 at 8pm and Oct. 29 at 2pm. Tickets are $15. For ticket reservations and more, visit the Sunset Playhouse online.