Metropolitan Playhouse's latest creative endeavor is Poe-Fest, a two-week celebration of the world of Edgar Allan Poe that includes some thirteen new plays and musicals inspired by the life and work of this great American author. Diversity and surprise are the trump cards here, I think: sample some of the seven "vaults" that artistic director Alex Roe and his staff have programmed and you'll find a comic monologue by Trav S.D., a mystery/parody by improv maven Laura Livingston, a biographical drama by Alexander Poe (who gave Kafka similar treatment at last summer's FringeNYC), and a great deal more. Poe-Fest includes entries from non-NYC-based writers, which is a treat; there's even a late night event in which Poe's characters supposedly gather together to surprise—and murder—their creator.
I caught one evening, "Vault A," comprised of three very different and unusual pieces. The jolliest is Quoth the Raven, a canny one-act written and directed by Dan Evans that postulates that the famous bird who supposedly only said "Nevermore" may in fact have been responsible for a great many more of the words that Poe put to paper. Chris Harcum is a dead ringer for the brooding, morbid poet, while performance artist LuLu LoLo (hidden most efficaciously behind black drapery) provides voice and very spirited soul for a muppet-like Raven, a fuzzy and feathery black bird that might be cuddly were it not so forbidding and bossy. Denise Montgomery, Ray McDavitt, and Kevin Draine complete the cast as three assorted visitors to Poe's rooms in this quirky, humorous play.
Eleanora, a musical by Tara Sophia Bahna-James (book & lyrics) and Jonathan Portera (music), is the evening's pleasantest surprise. Based on a lesser-known story by Poe, it tells of a young man named Edward (Cullen R. Titmas) who is haunted by memories of a lost love named Eleanora (Roberta Gumbel) , even as he tries to work out his relationship with his new love, Ermengarde (Culver Casson). (Eleanora is pronounced, charmingly, "El-e-a-nora"; that kind of unexpected lyricism pervades this lovely piece.) All three performers bring warmth and compassion to their roles, and Portera's music is served beautifully by accompanist Kat Sherrell. Only 20 minutes long, it takes us on a complete emotional journey free of irony and sentiment; it's a sweet piece.
The final entry on the bill, Stephen Peace's 101 Ways To Kill Someone And Get Away With It by The Famous Defense Lawyer HH Munroe, is the only one that takes place in the present day. A book with the same title as the play has become a best-seller and indeed has transformed society: evidently a lot more people than we might expect want to commit murder, with the result that the population has been decimated and the security surrounding the simple act of selling the book is enormous. There's a serial killer on the loose, apparently intent on finding and assassinating HH Munroe; Munroe himself is ensconced in his fortress-like home, seemingly unable to enjoy the riches that his book has brought him. (He's also clearly annoyed by his wife, who keeps going out and buying handbags.) Peace's idea here is a good one, and his ending is a peach; but the exposition takes considerably longer than it needs to, and overall the play, directed by Derek Jamison, exhibits a sluggish pace. There's also the question of precisely what all of this has to do with Mr. Poe. Andrew Firda and John Blaylock do fine work as author and killer, respectively; Lisa Barnes has fun with the whiny wife role, and David Lally is effective as a book store clerk. Erin Hunter and Jenne Vath, saddled with the too-long opening scene, fare less well as book seller and customer.
I had a good time at my evening at Poe-Fest. Whether you're a fanatic or just, like me, a more casual appreciator of the works of this great American writer, I think you'll find something to your liking in this inventive and ambitious mini-marathon of new theatre. Metropolitan Playhouse continually finds new and interesting ways to accomplish its mission of honoring America's literary past. This idea is definitely a keeper!