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November 1, 2012

Center Stage presents 'Final Strange Tale of Edgar Allan Poe'

Center Stage opened its 50th anniversary season last month with “An Enemy of the People,” a heavy-handed, often dull play that an uneven cast could not quite enrich.

That has now been followed by “The Complete Fictional — Utterly True — Final Strange Tale of Edgar Allan Poe,” a heavy-handed, often dull play that a dynamic, well-matched cast cannot quite enrich.

It’s really a little too soon to worry about where Center Stage is headed, but artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah’s first two choices for the 2012-2013 lineup give one pause.

There was, of course, an obvious reason to consider “Enemy,” Arthur Miller’s Ibsen-inspired examination of politics and ethics, during an election season.

Likewise, it's understandable to focus on Poe, given the master of the macabre’s strong ties to Baltimore. But “The Final Strange Tale” seems ...

like a work in progress, still awaiting an editor’s dry-eyed surgery.

Premiered last year at the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, R.I., the play was written by Stephen Thorne, a resident actor in that troupe. He takes as his starting point Poe’s final hours in October 1849.

How Poe ended up in Baltimore, much the worse for wear after a week that started in Philadelphia, has long been a subject of speculation. Thorne does not attempt so much to settle the matter as to peer into the poet’s state of mind at the end.

He gives us a confused, but defiant, Poe on his bed at Washington College Hospital, consumed by memories and hallucinations, determined to escape the embrace of death. There is plenty of theatrical potential here, and, at his best, the playwright imaginatively mixes history, fantasy and Poe’s own writings to create “a dream within a dream.”

Thorne can write lines that sing, startle and amuse. (Not since a quizzical Anne Francis delivered the line “Baltimore?” in the film version of “Funny Girl” has a script offered a character the chance to shine just by uttering our city’s name.)

But, too often, the vivid moments are followed by laborious bits of Freudian analysis. And several passages that have “final scene” written all over them turn out to introduce still more material. In the end, the play’s two-hour running time feels much longer.

The production from Trinity Rep, designed by Eugene Lee, gets effective mileage out of a wooden platform in a theater-in-the-round set-up. The center of that platform can be lowered deeply at will, perfect for conjuring up images of the grave.

Director Curt Columbus piles on some haunted house shtick, where just a touch would be more telling. But some of the spooky stuff does have a terrific visual payoff, especially in a scene that references Poe’s tale of mesmerism, “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.”

Bruce Randolph Nelson is the death-facing Poe. When it comes to chewing scenery, this actor is quite the gourmand, and he indulges his appetite fully here. The play-to-the-balcony emphasizing can get wearying, but the fire in the performance often hits home.

The other performers take on multiple roles — doctors, Poe family members, etc. — and do so with admirable flair.

Charlie Thurston is a particularly dynamic presence as Young Edgar — scenes between the two Poes, arguing over inspiration and life choices, are the play’s most intriguing and incisive. Jimmy Kieffer’s portrayal of Charles Dickens, seemingly the most unlikely figure to pop into Poe’s head, is delectably colorful.

But, for all the sparks from the cast, “The Final Strange Tale” doesn’t really end up shedding much light on the subject matter. Not does it grab hold and refuse to let go, the way any story about Poe should.

The production runs through Nov. 25.


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:25 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Center Stage, Drama Queens


"While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one stupidly rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
"'Tis some dull critic," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door —
Only this and nothing more."

"You old meanie, why didn't you tell me you were literate?" -- Gloria Upson (paraphrased)

I looked forward to this play and was very disappointed. It went on way too long and I can't articulate what, if anything, the audience was supposed to take away

Saw yesterday's (Nov 10) matinee. I know the cast has to hold back a bit on 2-show days, but the nature of this play doesn't allow for much of that. The actors were in fine form, from the leads on out.

But I have to agree with commenter Ms Weinholt---too many words, too much of something indecipherable going on, in the effort to portray the possible manic events occuring in Poe's fevered, drunken, cold, lonely, lost mind and life during the last few days of his life. Did the author really want us to experience the event in real time like that?

The poor: Too long. An inordinate and unfair amount of dialog for the principals to work on (e.g., Poe 1 and Poe 2). Events shifting from continuously also seemed an unnecessary burden on the wonderful cast.

The good: Cast, staging, story idea. Lead player. A special delight people were discussing at intermission: The cast again---its sparkle; its diversity, in particular, was especially welcomed given the recent election.

I saw the play yesterday and felt it was a wasted afternoon. Poe wrote better lines than this playwright does. A playwright could have made a worthwhile play by drawing on Poe's own works, as others have done with the works of Mark Twain and Robert Service.

One of the compelling dialogues in the play, that seemed to be the intellectual through-line of the piece, seemed to come from a work of Poe's that many may not know. It is neither a poem nor a tale, rather an essay entitled "The Making of a Poem" in which Poe expounds upon the both the system and the philosophy behind his poetry; structure, length, mood and atmosphere, and methodology for twisting our emotional and intellectual core.
This piece was the basis for the discourse between old Poe and young Poe about whether or not one should be methodical, a slave to his work, or emotional, spontaneous, a creature of whim led by his muse.
I would advise any one seeing the play, beforehand, to take a look at "A Making of a Poem." It seemed to be the focal point that grounded our hero.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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