R.H. Wilhoit and Alisa Lynn in “Electric Poe” (Jordan Rice)
For the second year in a row, the Coterie Theatre is staging guitar-tinged adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe in partnership with the Union Cemetery Historical Society. And for the second year in a row, the result is worth seeing—provided you can nab a good seat.
It would have been easy for the Coterie to turn “Electric Poe” into a stagnant holiday show—to do for Halloween what “The Nutcracker” did for Christmas, marking the season by marching in place.
Instead, director Jeff Church chose two new tales for this year’s production: “The Pit and the Pendulum” and the lesser known “Ligeia.” Both tales are performed in front of Union Cemetery’s “holding vault”—a nineteenth century purgatory for those who died mid-winter, their burials halted until the ground could thaw.
At dusk, when shadows sweep over the cemetery like a weighted blanket, that backdrop is authentically creepy. The trade-off is awful sight lines. If you don’t set up your lawn chair in one of the first three rows, you’ll have trouble seeing much of the action, thanks to dead-center blocking and a stingy use of levels. Get here early to snag a prime patch of lawn.
Your patience will earn a payoff. Actor R.H. Wilhoit once again anchors the Coterie’s cast with crisp, considered narration and an energy that can make Poe’s past-tense passages feel immediate and urgent. As the prisoner in “The Pit and the Pendulum,” Wilhoit finds a pitched mix of terror and fury, punctuated by moments of perverse glee—as when discovering a slimy wall in his interminably large, black cell. And his elastic facial expressions sell an especially fun moment involving a glinty-eyed rat puppet (technically, a rats puppet) supplied by the Mesner Puppet Theater. The effect is more campy than grotesque, but that’s hardly off-key for Poe.
Guitarist Scott “Rex” Hobart also returns this year to provide both a live soundtrack and sound effects for the show. Every flourish feels deliberate, from a muffled glissando across the fretboard (to mimick the sickly sweep of the pendulum) to noisy, hammered arpeggios (to paint a roiling aural backdrop for scene changes).
New to the cast this year is Alisa Lynn, who opens the show with a sort of dramatic epigraph—an ominous reading of H.P. Lovecraft’s “Where Once Poe Walked.” Lynn sets an ominous tone for the show, burning sage as she sweeps between headstones in a gauzy, blush-colored dress fit for a Victorian ghost (the Coterie’s resident costume designer, Georgianna Londré Buchanan, does not miss). She also plays both wives to the speaker in “Ligeia” and matches Wilhoit’s energy, though she has a tougher task. The scripting here is a bit odd, frequently forcing Lynn (as Ligeia) to read lines about herself in the third person.
Adapting prose for the stage can be tricky. Poe wasn’t much for dialogue, and his moody descriptions of curtains and cornices were never going to make riveting theater. But Church’s cuttings have mostly preserved Poe’s romantic voice while dialing in on the stories’ most propulsive moments.
Smart visual touches further justify the theatrical treatment, from gruesome masks to ghostly silhouettes cast through a billowing silk curtain (resident lighting designer Jarrett Bertoncin is the catalyst for much of the magic here). The result is a show that’s more chilling than cheesy—engaging for adults but chaste enough for older kids.
As the show ended, I heard the teenager in front of me eject a sigh in his parents’ direction. “All right,” he said. “I’m sorry for my attitude. This was cool.”
“Electric Poe,” a production of the the Coterie Theatre and the Union Cemetery Historical Society, runs at Union Cemetery through October 31. For more information, call 816-474-6552 or visit thecoterie.org