An exploration of the last days of Edgar Allen Poe’s life incorporating dance, physical theater, and Poe’s own words set to original jazz/avant-garde music? RED-EYE to HAVRE de GRACE isn’t the kind of show you’re likely to encounter at the Plymouth Playhouse, sure, but by the standards of the Walker Art Center’s Out There series, it’s not particularly out there. In fact, one might go so far as to say it’s right in there.
What distinguishes this decades-in-the-making production by Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental with Wilhelm Bros & Co., then, is not its concept but its execution. Though the show feels a bit long at 90 minutes, it’s tight as a drum—with precise choreography (notably executed by the remarkable Alessandra L. Larson) and flawlessly fluid transitions. Each scene aims for a different tone, and totally nails it. You might question whether Neil Diamond’s “Done Too Soon” really needs to be in there, but you’re absolutely certain it’s in there for a reason.
The show’s savvy and wit are apparent from the beginning, as a park ranger steps before the curtain to set the scene with some biographical information about Poe. To say any more would be to spoil some of the show’s most charming surprises, but the ranger is part of an elegant solution to the problem that routinely bedevils shows like this: if a show supplies too much information about its source material, it feels didactic, but if it supplies too little, it’s in danger of completely losing wide swaths of its audience. Count on a park ranger to tell you exactly what you need to know.
The music is performed live by its composers—the Wilhelm brothers—using pianos that are specially prepared, as well they need to be given what they’re subjected to. Director Thaddeus Phillips’s set looks minimal, but the economy with which certain props—notably a multifunction door/table—are used has taken what was once (in the show’s earliest incarnations) a matter of necessity and made it a conscious creative choice. As Poe (Ean Sheehy) steps over, through, around, and under the door/table, it becomes a metaphor for the complex, changeable connections in the late writer’s mind.
Though Thursday night’s audience laughed often (albeit never louder or longer than during the ranger’s opening narration), the show’s final scenes felt dragged down by the production’s great seriousness of purpose. The very best shows of this nature manage to step outside of themselves and question their own reasons for existing; in that respect, RED-EYE to HAVRE de GRACE stays mostly inside the box. When it’s such a well-built box, though, why leave?