The theater company Elevator Repair Service made its name with its adaptations of American modernist literary classics, but for a sold-out one-night show on Friday, Dreams Terrifically Disturbed, they dipped into something a little older, though no less American: Edgar Allan Poe, whose stories, letters and even a scene from an unfinished play they read at the Morgan Library and Museum. (The performance was related to a Poe exhibit that’s up until January 26.) Poe is the godfather of scary stories, but it’s hard to spook generations raised on horror movies with the written word. When master dramatics read it, though, the inherent horror becomes clear: this was Poe as it’s meant to be experienced, easily shifting between tones—comedy, horror, curiosity—with the help of music and sound effects from actor Ben Williams, seated behind the cast on a MacBook (as he was during The Select).
It was like watching first-rate radio theater; “The Masque of the Red Death” made you clutch your arm rests. But actually what has stayed with me most was the comedy: Kate Scelsa making hay of Poe’s delusions of grandeur and scientific theories from a letter to George Eveleth, Susie Sokol’s Rasta-German accent for the creature in “The Angel of the Odd,” Mike Iveson’s various European inflections in the drunken, gossipy opening scene of Politian: A Tragedy. The most notable break from that was when Williams read a letter to Annie Richmond from 1849, an angsty and despairing letter about his commercial failures. All in all, the 75-minute show highlighted Poe’s range—from despairing romantic to witty satirist, cosmologist to spine-tingler.
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