RH Wilhoit and Alisa Lynn in “Electric Poe” (Jordan Rice)
For the second year in a row, the Coterie Theater presents guitar-tinged adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe in partnership with the Union Cemetery Historical Society. And for the second consecutive year, the result is worth the detour, provided you have a good place.
It would have been easy for the Coterie to turn “Electric Poe” into a stagnant holiday show – to do for Halloween what “The Nutcracker” did for Christmas, marking the season by marching in place.
Instead, director Jeff Church chose two new tales for this year’s production: “The Pit and the Pendulum” and the lesser-known “Ligeia.” Both tales are played out in front of the Union Cemetery’s “detention vault” – a 19th-century purgatory for those who died in mid-winter, with their burials halted until the ground could thaw.
At dusk, when shadows sweep across the graveyard like a weighted blanket, this backdrop is authentically spooky. The trade-off is terrible sightlines. If you don’t get your lawn chair in one of the first three rows, you’ll struggle to see much of the action, thanks to dead center blocking and stingy use of tiers. Arrive early to snag a prime patch of lawn.
Your patience will be rewarded. Actor RH Wilhoit once again anchors the Coterie cast with crisp, thoughtful storytelling and an energy that can make Poe’s past passages feel immediate and urgent. As a prisoner in “The Pit and the Pendulum”, Wilhoit finds a high-pitched mix of dread and fury, punctuated by moments of perverse glee – such as when he discovers a slimy wall in his endlessly large black cell. And his springy facial expressions sell a particularly fun moment involving a glowing-eyed rat puppet (technically, a rats puppet) provided by the Mesner Puppet Theatre. The effect is more campy than grotesque, but that’s not wrong for Poe.
Guitarist Scott “Rex” Hobart also returns this year to provide both live soundtrack and sound effects for the show. Every flourish feels deliberate, from a muffled glissando on the fretboard (to mimic the sickly sweep of the pendulum) to loud, hammering arpeggios (to paint a choppy sonic backdrop for scene changes).
Newcomer this year is Alisa Lynn, who opens the show with a dramatic epigraph of sorts – an ominous reading of HP Lovecraft’s “Where Once Poe Walked.” Lynn sets an ominous tone for the show, burning sage as she sweeps between headstones in a floaty blush-colored gown fit for a Victorian ghost (the Coterie’s resident costume designer Georgianna Londré Buchanan is no shortage) . She also plays the speaker’s two wives in “Ligeia” and matches Wilhoit’s energy, although she has a more difficult task. The script here is a bit odd, frequently forcing Lynn (like Ligeia) to read lines on itself in the third person.
Adapting prose for the stage can be tricky. Poe was not very good at dialogue, and his brooding descriptions of curtains and cornices were never going to make for gripping drama. But Church’s cuts mostly preserved Poe’s romantic voice while composing the stories’ most propulsive moments.
Clever visual touches further justify the theatrical treatment, from gruesome masks to ghostly silhouettes projected through a billowing silk curtain (resident lighting designer Jarrett Bertoncin is the catalyst for much of the magic here). The result is a show that’s more scary than cheesy – engaging for adults but chaste enough for older kids.
At the end of the show, I heard the teenager in front of me sigh in the direction of his parents. “Very well,” he said. “I’m sorry for my attitude. It was cool.
“electric poe,” a production of the Coterie Theater and the Union Cemetery Historical Society, runs at Union Cemetery through October 31. For more information, call 816-474-6552 or visit thecoterie.org