Horror or humor?
Poe gets a fresh treatment at Blue Room
Of all the literary styles, none lends itself to parody more than the Gothic horror found in Edgar Allan Poe’s tales of the macabre. That may be why Joe Hilsee chose to write his director’s note for the Blue Room Theatre’s production of A Heart Laid Bare as a parody of that style.
The horror in this case, he writes, was that, just five weeks before his troupe was scheduled to mount a new play it “had no script, no cast, merely a looming and gloom-inducing abyss in the calendar that was approaching with an ominous and ceaseless footstep.”
Well, deadlines don’t take footsteps, much less “ominous and ceaseless” ones, but that’s Gothic-horror parody for you.
Fortunately, Hilsee continues,“the rare and radiant” Amber Miller, a core member of the Blue Room troupe, “noticed the look of rank terror in my eye and the quaver of consummate fear in my voice. … ‘Why not Poe?’ she asked with a tone that I am sure she meant as reassuring, yet nonetheless it sent a chill so frightful through my veins, that the vision at once became indelibly etched and scarred within my brain. ‘Yes,’ I whispered. ‘Poe!’”
Hilsee goes on in this delirious manner to describe how he and Miller “chopped and hacked and reassembled Poe’s words” to create “a single overriding arc, a unifying narrative that would communicate Poe’s vision of gloom and dread.”
That “unifying narrative” is made up of scenes and images from two Poe short stories, “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Tell-Tale Heart,” along with elements from four of his poems, including “The Raven.”
“The Fall of the House of Usher” provides the framework. The story’s narrator, here called Edgar (and played by Hilsee, who’s made up to look like Poe), has been summoned by his boyhood friend Roderick Usher (Rob Wilson) to the foreboding “mansion of gloom” where he and his twin sister Madeline (Julia Rauter) are both suffering from mysterious and likely fatal mental disorders. They are being cared for by a Nurse (Miller, costumed in a nun’s habit).
Poe’s story contains virtually no dialogue. It’s almost all narration, and on the rare occasions when Roderick speaks, it’s in whole paragraphs. While the new play contains a smattering of dialogue, placed there apparently during the reassembling process, it’s not enough to lighten the ponderousness of the text, especially Edgar’s long descriptions of events and his own fearful and horrified reaction to them.
Hilsee, one of Chico’s finest actors, doesn’t hold back; we watch as his Edgar becomes an emotional wreck as he witnesses the terrible demise of Roderick and Madeline and the House of Usher. But his perfervid narration, and the moaning and groaning it demands, is so overwrought that it verges on parody, and I, for one, sometimes felt like laughing. Perhaps that was the creators’ intention.
The interpolation of a reading of “The Raven” into the middle of the Usher tale serves mostly to point out the awkwardness of trying to tear apart and then reassemble selections from several of Poe’s works. I searched for a “unifying narrative” and couldn’t find it.
That said, one has to admire the courage of the Blue Room troupe. They took a big risk, memorized a boatload of lines, and came up with something that’s fresh and audacious and either funny or macabre, depending on your taste and your fondness for Poe’s unique brand of Gothic horror. And it’s just in time for Halloween.