The Horror, The Horror

Comedy Playhouse's 'Poe' is insufficiently spooky

With Halloween on the horizon, The Comedy Playhouse has stepped away from its usual fare of genteel comedy to produce a night of horror, The Chilling Mysteries of Edgar Allan Poe II.

The evening has the company's usual oddball charm and a few creepy moments, but it's disjointed—neither particularly scary nor particularly fun. The playhouse really ought to stick to what it does best: comedy.

This is the second year that the company has produced a Halloween show of gothic poems and stories by Poe (1809-1849). Both productions have featured two of his best-known works, "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Pit and Pendulum," along with a few lesser-known tales and poems. This year adds "The Oval Portrait," wherein a painting turns out to have a tragic back story, and "Berenice," about a young madman's obsession with his beloved's teeth, along with a couple of other works.

The set is an interior decorated with old-fashioned landscape paintings and portraits, and a profusion of props—including a skeleton and a box of teeth. It has the feeling of a cabinet of curiosities, crammed with the creepy detritus that might have graced the rooms of Poe's madmen.

The presentations vary. Some stories and poems are simply recited to the audience, while others mix narration and action. When the show attempts more complex action and special effects, it struggles. Ultimately, it's the straightforward narration of one of the most-famous of Poe's pieces that works best.

Actor Paul Hammack provides a fine recital of the short story "The Pit and the Pendulum," which details the narrator's travails in a fiendishly designed torture chamber. No props are used, and a few selected sound effects punctuate the story. These sounds—especially the squeals of chattering rats—are quite effective and scary. The vivid details of the gory tale still resonate today and provoke a shiver.

Bruce Bieszki, the playhouse's founder and director, recites another of Poe's most-famous works, the iconic poem "The Raven." He does a good job, relying only on the help of one small prop raven. Instead of emphasizing the singsong rhymes and repetitions of lines such as, "Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary," he stresses the unhinged nature of the speaker. This poem is so famous that most audience members can be expected to know its premise (a mysterious raven appears before the distraught speaker) and can simply enjoy the performance.

However, when Bieszki recites two short poems that are lesser known, "The Conqueror Worm" and "The City Beneath the Sea," no context is provided, and the audience is stuck playing catch-up. Unless your ear is attuned to rhyming poetry, or you have a great deal of knowledge of 19th-century terminology, you may find yourself confused.

Bieszki is responsible for most of the behind-the-scenes elements, with assistance from technical directors Sean O'Connell and Callie Hutchison. The company specializes in community theater, performed by mostly amateur actors, and it's not known for its technical prowess. Unfortunately, the attempt to use more complicated effects in The Chilling Mysteries falls flat.

In the very first piece, the short story "The Cask of Amontillado," Bieszki and actor Colin Roberts try a fairly complex special effect—manipulating the backdrop to simulate a man being walled in, alive, inside of a vault. The result is awkward; the pieces of the set are audibly shuffled during transitions, and the entire process takes too long to be chilling. It's a relief that the rest of the performance does not call for this kind of stage work.

Other technical elements are similarly clunky. The lighting transitions between pieces take far too long. A recorded voiceover is used occasionally, and the sound is so low that one has to strain to catch it.

The voiceover also feels pointless sometimes. In "The Tell-Tale Heart," actor Drew Kallen gives a chilling characterization of the guilt-ridden protagonist. But we alternate between his onstage narration and his recorded voice. Why the need for both? The recording slows down the pace and undercuts his performance.

One technical element does work well: For "The Oval Portrait," a painting of actor Cristin Phibbs is hung onstage. Not only is the artwork impressively executed; it blends in seamlessly with the rest of the set.

The Comedy Playhouse is a passion project for Bieszki. (He previously worked with Live Theatre Workshop and Top Hat Theatre.) Typically, he produces bare-bones versions of older farces and sketches from such authors as Mark Twain and G.K. Chesterton. The plays are usually amusing and endearing, and the playhouse fills a unique niche.

Although "The Pit and Pendulum" and a few other segments work well, this string of Poe pieces never comes together in a coherently executed whole. Back to the laughs, please.

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