"Red-Eye to Havre de Grace"
Quick - Edgar Allen Poe. What comes to mind? “The Raven.” Obviously. It’s far and away the most famous of Poe’s works. This was true even in Poe’s time, a fact expressed with compelling hilarity – and on several occasions – during “Red-Eye to Havre de Grace,” currently stunning East Village audiences at the New York Theater Workshop.
Poe wrote his most popular poem in 1846 and died just three years later – broke and broken. During his last 1000 or so days, he was asked to “do ‘nevermore’!” with significantly more frequency than we are led to believe interested him. Though he had written many other well-received works, once “The Raven” came along, everything else dropped to a distant second.
By the time frame of this play – the last few days of his life – Poe had moved on, flinging himself into a metaphysical treatise in the form of a 150-page prose poem called “Eureka.” When most physicists of the day described a steady-state theory of the universe (that it always was and always will be just how it is), “Eureka: A Prose Poem” proffered a vision that incorporates what we now refer to as the Big Bang, the Singularity and the Higgs boson.
The piece (I won’t call it a play, because it’s much more than that) follows Poe on a journey to present this vision to the Philadelphia Literary Society, and then immediately return to New York to reunite with the woman he called “Muddy” – the mother of Poe’s now long-dead wife (and cousin), Virginia.
Penniless and ill, Poe (a marvelously sunken-eyed Ean Sheehy) shambles between train cars and boarding houses, offering writing services (a poem, or recitation, even brochure copy) as payment in lieu of cash.
The journey takes the form of music (by the Wilhelm brothers, David and Jeremy), movement, recitations and dialogues – amid a collection of simple set pieces (a couple of doors that also serve as tables, walls, etc., and a bed frame) and a handful of props.
While David Wilhelm mainly sits upstage right, playing the piano, brother Jeremy takes a more active role. Several roles, actually. Train conductors, boarding house proprietors, doctors… But his primary role is that of a very sincere National Park Ranger assigned to the Poe House in Phildelphia, who introduces the play, guides us through the action and provides background and context. From time to time he also sings (a very passable baritone) and plays a sweet and mournful clarinet.
This show is not for everyone. None of my three companions liked it much. I, however, found it thrilling and imaginative and heart-breaking and funny and true and beautiful and strange. It was an experience that happened on so many different levels – emotional, intellectual, artistic, conceptual – that it’s one of those rare shows I’d see again immediately, because there was so much going on that I’m certain I missed vast swaths of meaning.
In some ways, it reminds me of a Cirque du Soleil show, in that there is almost always music playing and almost always something surprising or amazing going on in terms of staging or physical performance. Early on there is a delightful scene in which Poe is being led to his room in a boarding house. By moving and turning and rearranging a pair of doors/tables, a chair and Poe’s suitcase, we get the sense of the two men climbing stairs and walking along hallways to finally arrive in an attic crawl space.
But there are delightful surprises throughout “Red-Eye to Havre de Grace,” and I don’t want to spoil them all for you. What I do want to do is convince you to go see it. Immediately. Tonight if you can. After all, it closes June 1.