AUTHOR! AUTHOR! McEleney as Poe.
What's left to spook us these days? Crime shows display forensic detail that has inured us to blood. Fear of the unknown has lessened as we think we know everything, not finding "here there be dragons" on the edges of maps anymore.
So how to make Edgar Allan Poe scary to modern audiences? One way is to not pretend he's really scary. Make his stories more like tales around a cackling campfire, in line with the adolescent imaginations he has always appealed to.
Trinity Repertory Company provides audiences a distant howling wind instead of background music as they wait for the opening of the world premiere of The Completely Fictional — Utterly True — Final Strange Tale of Edgar Allan Poe, written by company actor Stephen Thorne and helmed by artistic director Curt Columbus. And since the stories themselves are melodramatic, well removed from reality, scenes from his writings get a stylized treatment, like your favorite Bela Lugosi movies.
The play lasts barely more than two hours, yet it seems longer. It's inventively structured but doesn't become compelling until the second section. Then Poe (Brian McEleney) is confronted by his younger self, Edgar (Charlie Thurston), and we have a conflict we can fully care about.
The play begins with the potential for that advantage, with Poe in dire circumstances. It is October 1849 in the last few days of his life, in which he reportedly never regained full consciousness. He is in a hospital, having been found raving drunk in a Baltimore gutter, his past seven days a blank, as he relates his situation to us. An alcoholic whom a glass of wine could send tumbling down his dark rabbit hole of delirium, Poe's lost week is a mystery that binds him and us in mutual interest — ours curious, his fraught.
This introduction is staged to make clear that we are seeing his real situation through his delirious imagination: his nurses become a chorus of born-again church ladies fluttering their hands in the air.
But we have to wait a long while before this becomes a psychological drama of Poe desperate to learn what brought him to this state. First we become acquainted with "The Facts in the Case of Mlle. Valdemar," a story of his in which the French mesmerist of the title is able to postpone death by hypnotizing a man on his deathbed at the very moment he is about to expire. He meets Mlle. Valdemar (Angela Brazil), dressed dramatically in red-lined black, at a New York salon at which he is giving a dramatic reading. She puts a Mr. VanKirk (Charlie Thurston) into a coma and, to the distress of the man's widow (Phyllis Kay), in a terrific special effect, the man melts to dripping green goo. Before Poe himself can visit the afterlife, hopefully in solid form, he "wakes" back in the hospital.
We hear other bits and pieces of Poe's stories, poems, and published observations, plus characters such as his wife Virginia (played by a grown-up Lauren Lubow, though in real life she was his 13-year-old cousin). We even meet Charles Dickens (Fred Sullivan, Jr.), who once wrote an appreciative note to Poe, but nothing substantial is done with this relationship, even when he enters the story again later.