Nevermore: hope hovers beyond darkness

Scott Shpeley as Edgar Allan Poe in Nevermore: The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe / Photo by Joan Marcus

Scott Shpeley as Edgar Allan Poe in Nevermore: The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe / Photo by Joan Marcus

My next Enchanté column

There can never be a more haunting line in literature than, “Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore.'”

Likewise, there is no more memorable theatre than the Canadian production, Nevermore — The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe, now playing at New World Stages in New York City.

The soul of Poe lives on the stage in Nevermore. The show’s poster reads: “His darkest story was his own.” That pretty well sums it up.

Born in Edmonton at Catalyst Theatre, Nevermore has made its way over tens of thousands of miles, across Canada, to England and now in a second run in New York City, this time moving up to New World Stages, in the heart of the theatre district.

Actor Scott Shpeley, who plays Poe, joined the cast at the show’s inception. Like several others involved in Nevermore, Shpeley trained at the University of Alberta. Six of the seven original Canadian cast members are still with the show. The lone newcomer is an American, Lindsie VanWinkle.

“In 2008, I auditioned right out of school,” said Shpeley. “Ryan [Parker, who plays Rufus Griswold] and I were in the same class. I’ve been really lucky to be part of projects like workshops of new plays and musicals.”

Once a show has its official opening, nothing is changed. Usually. Nevermore bends that rule.

“It’s been an adventure,” said Shpeley. “This show has broken the mold with changes happening throughout, since the opening. That’s what I love about Catalyst [Theatre]. They’re not scared of diving back into a work and adjusting it.”

Shpeley as Poe has a pivotal and crucial role in Nevermore, as I saw it performed last week.

“When the show started, I said almost nothing, and only sang twice or thrice,” he said, sounding rather Poe-like. “Now I’ve got bigger songs and more speaking. The narration of the story has changed. The story has evolved. Even the costumes have had to evolve with the show and new things have had to be built or adjusted on stage. The fearlessness and joy that the [Catalyst] company brings into the room is unlike many companies.”

Shpeley is spellbinding. It’s difficult to take one’s eyes off of him throughout the show. But the entire cast is special, drawing the audience into their collective and individual worlds.

Immediately after the show, I tweeted: “Nevermore….a haunting play with a darkly fun script, work-of-art costumes, dance and music in a Gothic manner. Poe lives @nevermorenyc.”

There is nothing with which to compare this play. It’s breaking new ground. I could say it reminds me of some bizarre, grotesquely beautiful combination of Gothic, steampunk, Devo meets Rocky Horror meets Edward Scissorhands. And for good measure, throw in the innocent lovable nature of Winnie the Pooh. It’s romantic and terrifying in the same moment. There are deeply tender scenes; there are also disturbing scenes.

Nevermore was written, composed and directed by Jonathan Christenson, Catalyst Theatre’s Artistic Director. Bretta Gerecke, also of Catalyst, designed the physical world of Nevermore, including sets, costumes and lighting. That’s a lot of talent in two people. Now multiply that several times and add the entire cast and crew.

After its initial Alberta run in 2009 to commemorate the bicentennial of Poe’s birth (January 19, 1809), Nevermore went on the road, touring throughout Canada and then to London, England, where it played at the prestigious Barbican Centre. It touched down at the New Victory Theatre in New York City for its first run in 2010. That’s when big time producers took note. Radio Mouse Entertainment headed up production. They brought it back to the City this year.

The show starts the moment you enter the theatre. Music sets the tone. Haunting and
As Nevermore unfolds, there are time you’ll feel like you’ve hopped onto the wondrous and scary boat ride in Willy Wonka.

Watching the show, awe filled me from beginning to end. One moment it was the costumes, the next the music, then the movement on stage. Rarely have I experienced such a flawless production. The choreography by Laura Krewski is a unique combination of contemporary, ballet, lyrical, even jazz. Like other aspects of the show, dance weaves itself seamlessly into the spell that is being cast for two and a half hours.

Is this a musical? Certainly not in the traditional sense. In fact, some promo material calls it a musical play. Actors sing most of their lines, but more like they’re reciting poetry (Poe’s).

Is it a play? Again, not in the traditional sense. It’s performance art in that it challenges traditional theatre. It also challenges audiences to combine opposing feelings. The main themes running throughout this production are despair and hope.

“For me, this play is important because everything about its style is heightened,” said Shpeley. “What I love is that we ask the audience to live as large as we’re living on stage and to dive into the hope that Poe experienced, as well as his despair, but always his return to hope out of despair. We all go through phases, and we have to find a way back to hope. This guy’s journey through life is like that. He’s got a belief in the world that there’s beauty and love and he’s happy, then sad. I think it’s that theatrical adventure that makes this so important.”

When Shpeley moves on stage, there’s no doubt about Poe’s torment. Death and abandonment followed him throughout his short life. Diseases like tuberculosis stole key people from him. Be it caregiver or lover, significant loved ones disappeared from Poe beginning early in life with the loss of his mother. You hear her take her last gasps as young Poe watches her die. In Nevermore, you witness the genesis of famed Poe stories.

“Much in his life was heartbreaking,” said Shpeley.

The show opens with Poe holding a massive bound text, asymmetrical in proportions—of course, everything about this show is out of proportion. There’s an oversize quill, which Poe holds onto through much of the show.

In that opening scene, Poe blows a cloud of dust off the text, opens it, and then the stories unfold.

Like Poe’s poetry and prose, Nevermore has a unique rhythm. It takes a heightened sense of the musical awareness for actors to capture that. It’s comes as no surprise to learn that Shpeley is a multi-instrumentalist. He plays piano, drums, bass, guitar (acoustic and electric), cello, accordion and has performed in a nose flute ensemble.

“I really like music,” he said. “That’s kind of why I love theatre. When you get a group of actors in theatre or musicians playing together, there’s a community that can do things with and without speaking. There’s nothing else like it that you can build as a community.”

He is particularly fond of drums.

“It’s the instrument I love playing the most,” he said. “I really dig the drums. The rhythm of Poe’s work is so delicious, so mesmerizing and all of his work has such a unique rhythm. You hear that in The Bells and in The Conquerer Worm. A lot of the show is Poe’s own words. That fits the rhymes, the images in the show. You’ll see images from The House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, and The Black Cat.”

You can also sense traces of Ligeia and The Masque of the Red Death meandering into the script.

Shpeley said that he loves the vocabulary of Poe.

“I find that theatre can do that really well; you almost hear his voice.”

As the curtain closes, you will feel changed, moved by this unique experience, hopeful, despite the great despair that ever threatens to overwhelm us in life. As one audience member said following this seductive stage production: “Don’t miss this show. Don’t waste time on other shows. Just see this.”

What’s next for Nevermore. That’s an unknown. Wherever it plays, it’s worth traveling great distances to experience this masterful creation.

“The producers are very excited with plans for the show,” said Shpeley. “They’re just as passionate about this piece as we are. They want as many people as possible to see it.”

Visit nevermoreshow.com for some video clips.

Nevermore — The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe is currently playing at New World Stages at 340 W 50th Street, New York, until March 29. I’ll announce future dates and locations through Twitter @markaidanbergin

Cast and Creative:
Jonathan Christenson (Writer, Director, Composer, Lyricist)
Gaelan Beatty (Henry Poe, Ensemble)
Shannon Blanchet (Elmira Royster, Ensemble)
Beth Graham (Rosalie Poe, Fanny Allan, Sissy Clemm, Ensemble)
Ryan Parker (Rufus Griswold, Ensemble)
Garett Ross (David Poe, Jock Allan, Ensemble)
Scott Shpeley (Edgar Allan Poe)
Lindsie VanWinkle (Eliza Poe, Louise Gabriella, Muddy Clemm, Ensemble)
Bretta Gerecke (Production Designer)
Laura Krewski (Choreographer)
Wade Staples (Sound Design)
Matthew Skopyk (Music Producer)
Betty Moulton (Voice, Speech and Text Director)
David Wilson (Singing Repetiteur)
Michael Cassara (Casting Director)
Candice Charney (Production Stage Manager)
Trish Henson (Assistant Stage Manager)
Susan Keappock (Company Manager)

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About Mark Aidan Bergin

Writer, editor, photographic artist specializing in dance, theater, concert, fashion and street photography....sometimes musician. Explorer of arts, culture and world, and all things Celtic and Gotham. On a good day, or perhaps a bad day, simply a mad (FOOBAR, not angry) scientist.
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