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Edgar Allan Poe’s haunted mind in his final days

Sophie Bortolussi as Virginia and Ean Sheehy as Edgar Allan Poe in “Red-Eye to Havre De Grace.”

Johanna Austin

Sophie Bortolussi as Virginia and Ean Sheehy as Edgar Allan Poe in “Red-Eye to Havre De Grace.”

Adead man’s heart beating from beneath the floorboards. A stately raven perching ominously in a forlorn man’s study. A murderous husband betrayed by the wailing of a one-eyed cat.

The works of Edgar Allan Poe have yielded a host of indelible images, many related to the ghoulish vision of madmen and the musty creep of the supernatural. But there’s much more to his work, which ranges from literary criticism to pioneering efforts with the detective story and even a lengthy treatise on the origins of the universe.

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There’s also the mystery of his final days. Poe attempted to ride a train from Richmond, Va., to New York City, but along the way was spotted traveling in the wrong direction. After disappearing for several days, he died in a Baltimore hospital.

“The story of his life, and especially the last two weeks, is as interesting as any of his stories — maybe even more interesting. It’s like, his own Poe story is his demise,” remarks Thaddeus Phillips, whose show “Red-Eye to Havre De Grace” offers an impressionistic tour of the writer’s last days. (The title comes from the Maryland train stop that figures prominently in the action.)

After a long gestation period, including a workshop production in 2005 and a well-received appearance in the 2012 Philadelphia Live Arts Festival, “Red-Eye” will be presented at the Paramount Center Mainstage by ArtsEmerson, for five performances beginning Thursday. Phillips, who directs the piece, says additional tour dates will be forthcoming, but the Boston engagement is the only one announced so far.


“Red-Eye” doesn’t quite fit exactly into the category of straight play or musical; its creators call it an “action opera.” It includes a live musical score performed by David Wilhelm (rotating among instruments that include prepared piano, bassoon, clarinet, and flamenco guitar), and nine songs sung by his brother Jeremy Wilhelm, who also portrays a series of characters interacting with Poe.

Though Poe’s poetry has proven fertile ground for musical adaptation, from Phil Ochs’s setting of “The Bells” to local favorite Sarah Jarosz’s interpretation of “Annabelle Lee,” the lyrics for the songs in “Red-Eye” are mainly taken from Poe’s disarmingly direct letters to his beloved mother-in-law.

Ean Sheehy anchors the small cast as Poe, while Sophie Bortolussi embodies the memory (or perhaps the actual spirit) of Poe’s dead wife, Virginia, through movement and dance. Authorship of the devised piece is credited to the Wilhelms, Bortolussi, Phillips and Geoff Sobelle, under the aegis of Phillips’s production company Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental and the musical duo styled as Wilhelm Bros. & Co.

“This was his final blackout, and so you get to watch what happens,” says Sheehy, on the phone from New York. “We’re sort of stuck in his mind, and his mind is falling apart. What you’re going to experience is this disintegration.”

Phillips also designed the spare set, which is organized around a door, table, bed frame and a patch of grass. Projected supertitles offer cues to dates and locations, plus a running annotation of source materials underpinning the onstage references.

Simple sets are of course more friendly to the limited budgets of fringe theater, but Phillips describes the mix of “very sparse but very detailed” elements here as an artistic choice as well. “The essence of theater is transformations and stage magic, but done in such a way that’s interacting with the audience’s imagination. So instead of spoon-feeding everything, we throw out these things and they can create their own experience,” he says, speaking from his home in Bogotá, Colombia. For a key late scene, a hospital room is suggested with a piano, mirror, and nine light bulbs.

A crucial inspiration for “Red-Eye” is Poe’s final work, a sometimes-confusing postulation about the origin of the universe and the nature of life and death called “Eureka.” Poe ambiguously called the work both a prose poem and an essay, and it ranges from intuitive philosophical assertions to historical satire to dashes of science fiction.

In Poe’s assertion of a “primordial particle” at the heart of existence, Phillips sees antecedents in contemporary science.

“It’s a weird description of an atom but smaller than an atom, and that’s essentially the Higgs boson particle,” Phillips asserts, referring to the elementary particle discovered by researchers, with much fanfare, in 2012. “Poe’s weird, intuitive musings are akin to things that are being discovered now.” Others have found in “Eureka” an anticipation of the theory of the Big Bang, as well as the contention that the universe is continually expanding.

Poe was extremely enthusiastic about the work, proclaiming it his most important and predicting that it would eventually “revolutionize” science. By the time of the action in “Red-Eye,” the protagonist wants to share his cosmological musings but, frustratingly, is prompted to perform his biggest popular success, “The Raven,” instead.

Though Phillips was not an avid fan of Poe before he conceived of this show, vivid anecdotes from the writer’s life soon inspired its creation. Phillips excitedly shares stories about Poe arriving at a friend’s house and demanding to have his moustache shaved, and turning up unexpectedly at the home of an old love interest, only to chop radishes in her kitchen for hours. These details do nothing to blunt the popular image of Poe as a singularly peculiar character who had trouble reconciling his vivid imagination — and healthy self-regard — with the realities of the world around him. His poverty was an ever-present problem, as he failed to find financial rewards commensurate with his literary contributions.

But it’s in that gap, Sheehy says, that this unique personality becomes someone he can sympathize with.

“He knew that his work was so superior and really would change literature and was like nothing else that had been done. He knew his own genius. So it was extremely frustrating for him to not be recognized,” he says.

Though it was born from Poe’s very particular circumstances, a version of that frustration is something that many theatergoers can likely relate to.

“Everybody’s stupider than Poe,” Sheehy says, “but he still doesn’t have money to buy a piece of bread.”

Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at jeremy@jeremydgoodwin.com.
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