Jonathan Christenson’s “Nevermore – The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe” is a deathbed hallucination in the form of a gently campy musical burlesque with operatic overtones and bits of black comedy. And it might well call to mind the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ description of life outside society as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
‘NEVERMORE – THE IMAGINARY LIFE AND MYSTERIOUS DEATH OF EDGAR ALLAN POE’ Recommended When: Through Jan. 28 Where: Black Button Eyes Productions at The Edge Theater, 5451 N. Broadway Tickets: $30 Info: nevermorechicago.brownpapertickets.com Run time: 2 hours and 10 minutes with one intermission
Poe, the fabled 19th century Gothic/Romantic poet and short story writer who was a master of the macabre, could easily be the poster child for such an assessment. By the time he died at the age of 40 (from what has been variously attributed to everything from alcoholism and brain congestion to drugs, suicide and tuberculosis), he had achieved fame. But from earliest childhood and on, his life was so full of death, mental illness, abandonment, poverty, loneliness, rejection, heartbreak and self-destruction that it is little short of a miracle his talent was able to emerge and flourish. Of course, that talent spun out of the very same vortex of unhappy nature and nurture from which he was propelled from birth.
As its title suggests, “Nevermore” — now receiving its Chicago premiere by Black Button Eyes Productions, which staged last year’s fabulously creative “Shockheaded Peter” — is as much fantasia as fact. But Christenson, the Canadian artist responsible for its music, lyrics and book, deftly evokes the spirit and rhythm of Poe’s writing in ways that are true to its essence, yet never slavish. And while the storytelling can grow somewhat repetitive at times, over all it artfully suggests how the writer’s real-life nightmares morphed into haunted and haunting literature.
The story, stylishly narrated by Jeremy Trager, begins with a fever dream in which Poe (Kevin Webb, ideal as the slender, tempest-tossed, dissipated writer) is on a steamer ship traveling from Richmond, Virginia, to New York. It just happens that he is in the company of a troupe of actors who recognize him, and proceed to perform the story of his life in fantastical style.
There is trouble from the moment of his birth as his mother, Eliza (Jessica Lauren Fisher), a manic-depressive actress-singer more interested in her career than in raising three children, must deal with the failed actor and alcoholic who is her husband (Matt McNabb), and who ultimately abandons the family. Things only go from bad to worse after Poe’s mother dies, and he, as well as his older brother, Henry (Ryan Lanning) ,and their younger sister, Rosalie, are separated and sent to different foster homes.
Poe enters the wealthy but troubled household of the neurotic Fanny Allan (Maiko Terazawa), and her dictatorial, money-and-status-obsessed husband, Jock (McNabb), who cannot abide Poe’s artistic gifts, and punishes him by withholding financial support. As for Fanny, she dies in a mental asylum — yet another trauma for Poe.
As an adolescent, Poe falls in love with Elmira Royster (Megan DeLay), a smart, spirited girl who, like him, feels at home in graveyards. But after he goes off to college she marries someone else, leaving him shattered. Later, at the age of 26, Poe falls for his 13-year-old cousin and marries this “child bride” (aptly embodied here by a manneqin), who will die of consumption. Without doubt the “grim reaper” seemed to have hovered with an eerie relentlessness over Poe’s life, with hope quickly turning to loss and despair.
Director Ed Rutherford’s cast of seven is perfectly attuned to his stylish and stylized direction and Derek Van Barham’s choreography. And all are possessed of operetta-like voices that negotiate the challenges of Christenson’s score with ease, and with the excellent support of musical director/keyboardist Nick Sula and his superb musicians (Michael Evans, TJ Anderson and Cali Kasten). Supplying the visual magic are Jeremy Hollis (sets), Beth Laske-Miller (costumes and vivid masks), Liz Cooper (lighting), Robert Hornbostel (sound) and Rachelle “Rocky” Kolecke (props and puppet design).
Black Button Eyes’ mission is to produce seldom-seen works “containing elements of fantasy in which the magical and surreal invade reality.” Poe and “Nevermore” seem custom-made for the job.