In tribute to the master of macabre, Annapolis Shakespeare Company kicked off its 2015-2016 season on Edgar Allan Poe’s death day with the world premiere of Gregory Thomas Martin’s play in his honor. Descending the back steps to the 1747 cellar pub in historic Reynolds Tavern in Annapolis, you feel as though you indeed have entered a bygone era. The room you are shortly ushered to is small and dimly lit.
In part it’s the exposed brick walls, wooden beams and brick inlaid floor. Simple sconces light the dark room. There is an open fireplace and five high tables and chairs for the audience. Two candles sit atop each table.
Crumpled sheets of paper have fallen to the floor under another high table and chair by the bar. While you eat, Poe, played by Broadway actor Brian Keith MacDonald, pulls back a red curtain and slips into the small room. He sits alone at the table by the bar, dressed in black but for a white shirt, mumbling, looking through notes and writing at a simple wooden writing desk.
A barkeep, played by Renata Plecha, is dressed simply in brown, her hair tied back in a bun. She tidies up the bar, then lights the second candle on each table.
These two resident company actors share the stage with you, the audience. Over the next hour, you hear many famous Poe works — including Annabel Lee, Lenore and The Raven — joined together to give a glimpse into Poe’s fragile state of mind and heart during his final days.
McDonald evokes varying intensities of exultation and angst as Poe. Preparing for the role, he not only learned the script but also researched what Poe’s contemporaries said about him. Sharing the stage with Plecha also helped. “She provides a wonderful contrast,” he told me, “helping pull Poe in and out of his mental realities.”
Plecha transitions easily through her roles as Barkeep, Eliza and Poe’s Muse. Of her roles she says: “Eliza, Poe’s love, appears to Poe through flashbacks of events in Poe’s life, representing hope and love. The Muse inspires a lot of Poe’s writings, which turned darker after Eliza dies.”
Research into Poe and his Eliza (Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe) supports her characterization, as well. “All is happening in Poe’s mind,” she told me, “and the space is so intimate that every moment has to be believable.”
Deliberate movements and vocal variety add depth to both McDonald’s and Plecha’s characters.
Sally Boyett, producing artistic director of the Annapolis Shakespeare Company and director of Poe, commissioned the play and collaborated with the native playwright in support of the company’s mission to create new works, making them and classics accessible to all audiences.
Poe “seemed like a good fit for the fall season, the Reynolds Tavern and Poe’s ties to this area,” Boyett said. She adds that this show is a “cerebral production that puts Poe’s own words in a new context.”
In keeping with its mission, the Company will provide a variety of offerings this season including two Shakespeare plays and five classics that are, Boyett says, “adaptations through a modern lens.”
Poe plays on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Included in the single ticket price of $75 is a three-course prix fixe meal, gratuity, soda and iced tea and a seat near the actors. A cash bar, coffee and tea are additional. Two half-hour acts are separated by a 10-minute intermission.
Meanwhile, the company’s second offering, William Shakespeare’s comedy, As You Like It, opens this weekend.
As You Like It is Boyett’s modern adaptation set in 1930s’ Appalachia. It includes classically trained actors doubling in roles, bluegrass music, vocalists and much more.
While simultaneously performing in Poe, Plecha will portray the roles of Celia and Phoebe in As You Like It, which she calls “a play on how love manifests itself in different forms.”
Poe: thru Nov. 25 TuW 6:30 dinner, 7pm show, 1747 Pub at Reynolds Tavern, Annapolis. $75; rsvp: 410-415-3513; email@example.com.
As You Like It: Oct.17-Nov. 15 FSa 8pm, Su 3pm, also 2pm Sa Nov. 7 & 14, Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s Studio 111, 111 Chinquapin Round Rd., Annapolis. $25-$55: 410-415-3513; annapolisshakespeare.org.