The poem begins with a rhythmic stamping of feet -- almost a disco beat, except that the only percussion is the stamping of feet, obsessively, on the small, wooden platform stage of Washington Project for the arts.
When the voices come in, chanting to the same heavy beat, it is a night fever all right, but not a Saturday night fever: Once upon a midnight dreary/As I pondered weak and weary . . ."
It is one of the high ponts of "Edgar Allan Poe," a combined reading and psychobiography of the poet, complete with music, dancing, a silent film and slide projections. It will be repeated through Sunday night and then go on to Baltimore, where Poe is buried, to the University of Maryland for a Poe festival, and to a theater festival in France, where Poe is a grander figure -- larger and more strange -- than in his native country.
The French connection is significant. This Poe is conceived and directed by Marianne Marcellin, a Parisian who sees Poe as his countrymen have trouble seeing him "et le corbeau dit: jamais plus" is a line so totally different from "quoth the raven: nevermore." The play ends with a quotation from Baudelaire (whose translations gave Poe a dimension lost in the original) writing about the perpetual tempest" of Poe's life and telling of how "his phantom continues to obsess me."
Obsession is the theme of this theater piece, with a Poe (Rick Venable) who manages to be eloquent even when lying mutely in a fetal position, and who contributed as well the effective incidental music (chiefly for unaccompanied cello or unaccompanied soprano) that punctuates the action.
Obsession pervades the silent film, which plays on a screen beside the stage, sometimes interacting with the live actors. It returns over and over to scenes of brutality, repression and lust witnessed by the poet in his childhood, fragmented visions of the actress mother who died when he was 3, evocations of his intense loneliness as a child, his flight into fantasies. The film could almost be a home-movie shot by Poe's foster family, but that would be anachronistic by a century and they would never have preserved the shocking seduction scene that is played again and again.
It is a collage rather than a story, and fragments of the writing are embedded in the biography, "El Dorado" and "Annabelle Lee" sung as ballads, Poe's brutish step-father buried alive in fantasy in "A Cask of Amontillado." A strange experience, often a powerful one, and an interesting entree into the world of a writer well attuned to the underlying weirdness of reality.