Master of Macabre onstage appeals to transitioning youth

Children’s Theatre breathes new life into Edgar Allan Poe

by Dee Grano

(From left) Mark Sutton and Debra Mein perform a scene from “The Cask of Amontillado” from the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte’s production of “Tales of Edgar Allan Poe.” ()

Children’s Theatre of Charlotte Artistic Director Alan Poindexter has an interesting analogy for the undying appeal of Edgar Allan Poe: “The 19th century had Poe. My generation had the ‘Halloween’ and ‘Friday the 13th’ movies. Today kids are watching ‘Saw’ and ‘Hostel.’”

A more tasteful treatment of horror will be presented in the “Tales of Edgar Allan Poe,” playing Friday, March 9, through March 24 at the Wells Fargo Playhouse in ImaginOn. More information is available at www.ctcharlotte.org.

“Tales of Edgar Allan Poe” is a play that offers select vignettes from Poe’s work. The show opens with a passionate staging of the poem “Annabel Lee.” “The Tell-Tale Heart” is performed in two pieces (fitting given the subject matter of murder and dismemberment). “The Raven” is interspersed throughout adding to the continuous theme of the storytellers’ descent into insanity. The show includes the retelling of “The Cask of Amontillado” complete with live burial, and ends with the tolling of “The Bells.”

On the surface, such subject matter may seem inappropriate for staging at a children’s theater. “While Poe’s stories are complex, they appeal to children on many levels,” Gary Walker, instructor in the English Department of Central Piedmont Community College, explained. “There’s a clear suspension of belief, an invitation to enter into an imaginative world that is part of the everydayness of a child’s life.” Poindexter adds, “Middle and high school is about the time you start dealing with the darker aspects of life and growing up,” and, as such, “Tales of Edgar Allan Poe” is recommended for mature youth 11 years old and up.

Poe came by a dark disposition honestly. Abandoned by his father and orphaned by his mother’s death, he lived with the Allan family who never formally adopted him. He dropped out of college and failed in the Army, then married his 13-year-old cousin who died of tuberculosis. His sudden death at 40 spawned rumors of alcoholism, drug abuse and suicide.

Today, Poe is best known for originating horror in American literature, but he also invented the detective fiction drama with “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” He contributed to the emerging genre of science fiction, influencing Jules Verne (who wrote “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea”) and H.G. Wells (author of “War of the Worlds”).

“Inherent in Poe’s fiction is the search for the unknown and that may explain his appeal,” Walker said. “We’re compelled, not just to know, but to find and name what exists just beyond our reach.”

The theatrical set for “Tales of Edgar Allan Poe” is a minimalist, abstract landscape. Poindexter’s choice to create “a more psychological space than a real place” plays to Poe’s transformation of the Gothic tale from the supernatural to cerebral. The sound production will emphasize the ringing of the bells, the beating of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the crunching bones in “The Cask of Amontillado,” and of course, the raspy “Nevermore” of “The Raven.”

Though the original language is intact, “Tales of Edgar Allan Poe” is not presented as a period piece. The performers wear modern clothing and contemporary songs like Guns n’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle” are used.

“Live performance gives young people something they might not imagine when reading,” said Poindexter, who directed a similar version of Poe’s writing for the Charlotte Children’s Theatre in 2001. That production contributed to a shortage of Poe literature at area libraries.

Expand the mind of a young child by challenging them to read a classic text like Poe’s in a new way, but don’t be surprised if they sleep with the lights on.

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