A hugely stylized world that encompasses both the reality of Edgar Allan Poe’s miserable existence and the imagination of his macabre mind, the Arts Club / Catalyst Theatre presentation of Nevermore: The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe is big on visuals as it tells Poe’s own personal short story – from birth to untimely death.
Right from the start I was stuck comparing Nevermore’s look to Tim Burton, Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) and Edward Gorey (with a little Cirque and Seuss thrown in for good measure). But while I make these comparisons, it is only to help illustrate the world writer/director/composer Jonathan Christenson and production designer Bretta Gerecke have created, for without these references the show defies an easy description.
But while style definitely takes center stage, it does not mean it is lacking in any substance in telling its biography and even with the small inconvenience of a story that sees several characters similarly die, we remain, for the most part, engaged and fascinated by Poe’s life.
Christenson has chosen to tell Poe’s story primarily through a series of narrators, who also take on the role of the many characters in Poe’s life. Each one of the cast here (Shannon Blanchett, Sheldon Elter, Beth Graham, Ryan Parker, Garett Ross and Vanessa Sabourin), bring a delightful individual quirkiness to each of the narrators and characters they portray. And while all do a great job, for me it was Ryan Parker that stood out with his powerful singing voice and stage presence.
As the main character, Poe himself (Scott Shpeley) is, surprisingly, a man of very few words. Instead, Christenson has chosen to have Poe live mostly within his own head, reacting to what is happening around him – both real and imagined. Shepeley does a wonderful job as the silent Poe, verily drawing the audience into his madness, sorrow, joy and disappointment simply with his face and movements. And while Shpeley may not have had the strongest singing voice on stage last night, what he lacked musically was definitely made up for by his strengths as an actor.
Bretta Gerecke’s set design, which includes a wall of screens that move us between the real and fantasy of Poe’s life and imagination, is actually quite simple in its execution. But with her lighting design (along with associate Kerem Cetinel) combined with the sound design from Wade Staples (executed by Andrew G Smith) and her lush and quirky costumes, the relative simplicity of her set design is elevated to a beautifully executed technical sum of all its parts. Choreographer Laura Krewski is the final key that helps to bring all of the elements of the show into its single cohesive package. My only wish is that the show wasn’t so linear with the space above the main set piece just crying out to be used.
As with every other aspect of this show, Christenson’s music and lyrics are not wasted, designed to work in an almost perfect harmony with the technical aspects of the show and in helping to create the darkly layered mood. Indeed, while the songs are richly textured, Christenson’s entire soundtrack, underscoring much of his dialogue, is equally as mood inducing.
High on style, Nevermore: The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe is a skilfully executed sensory feast that will simultaneously astound and entertain.
Tickets are $25 and $45. Call the Arts Club Box Office at 604.687.1644 or visit artsclub.com.