Friday, January 22, 2010

Purloined Poe

At the Arts Club Theatre on Granville Island last night for the premiere of Catalyst Theatre's Nevermore, a co-production between the Arts Club, the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, and the 2010 Cultural Olympiad.

Catalyst is an Edmonton-based theatre company known for its bold and visually stunning musical adaptations of classic literary texts. Two years ago they brought their Frankenstein to the Cultch. This time around, they move from text to author, focusing on the "Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe." All the trademark Catalyst elements are there: the narrational/expositional structure (rhyming verse recounting EAP's life, in a mix of spoken word and recitative song, with feature numbers at key points); the seamless integration of movement and choreographic sequences into the plot and mise-en-scène; the eye-popping costumes; and a supremely talented ensemble of seven actors (including stand-out Scott Shepley as Edgar and the fine-voiced Ryan Parker in a succession of roles) whom you only realize at the end have collectively played more than 40 separate roles.

Unfortunately, another trademark feature of Catalyst's style (at least to judge by the two productions of their work that I've seen) is also on display in Nevermore: prolixity. Frankenstein, as I recall, was more than three hours long. And while this production clocks in at a modest 2 hours, 5 minutes (including 20 minute intermission) by comparison, it nevertheless drags on, and could benefit from judicious cuts, especially in the first act (which only brings us up to age 15 for poor Edgar). Catalyst Artistic Director Jonathan Christenson's narrational approach to his material provides the company with its trademark musical storytelling conceit, but dramaturgically it also hamstrings them, because Christenson seems to feel he has to tell the WHOLE story--or at least frontload much of the story onto the beginning and opening set-up. In the case of Nevermore, this mostly means we get far too much time devoted to Edgar's actress mother, Eliza. Consequently, in the second act the last 25 years of Edgar's life--including his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin, Virginia Clemm--has to be squeezed into 40 minutes.

Then, too, I'm not sure why the biography is hewed to so closely in this production. The references to Poe's literary output are surprisingly fleeting, and rarely incorporated into the lyrics of the songs. What references we do get to classic stories like "The Purloined Letter," "The Tell-Tale Heart," or "The Fall of the House of Usher," or even to the famous poem that provides the piece with its title, are telegraphed rather obliquely, again via references to Edgar's life, and the occasional visual cue. I'm sure Christenson and production designer Bretta Gerecke had a reason for concentrating on the biography rather than the fiction, but for the life of me I can't quite figure it out.


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