- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 12, 2006

Edgar Allan Poe is haunting Signature Theatre, and artistic director Eric Schaeffer wouldn’t have it any other way. “Everyone is under his spell now,” says Mr. Schaeffer, taking a breather between previews for the new musical, “Nevermore,” based on the poems and stories of the American poet and short story writer. The show, running through Feb. 26, is the last he will direct in the overhauled garage space in Arlington before moving on to glitzy new digs in Shirlington in the fall.

“The rehearsals were so intense that people were coming in saying they had nightmares, or woke up in a cold sweat, or are having all these bizarre dreams, and I’d think to myself, ‘That’s so Poe,’” he says.

Other than reciting “The Raven” in school and maybe having a desultory knowledge of the poems “Annabel Lee” or “The Bells,” neither Mr. Schaeffer nor composer Matt Conner were Poe fanatics or knew much about the guru of gruesome, except for his mysterious death at age 40, a death that still swirls with speculation.

On Oct. 3, 1849, he was found delirious and hallucinating on the streets of Baltimore and died shortly thereafter in a local hospital, having never regained consciousness. Was he drunk? Or had he finally succumbed to the voices in his head, the shadowy other world that seduced and tortured him? On the other hand, the musical’s book writer, Grace Barnes, devoured his short stories as a child in Scotland. “I must have been a morbid child,” she says.

“I think he’s a fascinating character because he embraced the dark side — his love of the macabre was so strong and he was so intrigued by death.”

“Nevermore” takes place on the last night of Poe’s (Daniel Cooney) life — an ethereal and vertiginous journey through his personal demons and the women who gripped him until death loosened their grasp. All the songs in the show are Poe’s poems and short stories set to music and depict his relationships with his Mother (Florence Lacey), his aunt and mother-in-law Muddy (Channez McQuay), his tubercular teenage bride Virginia (Lauren Williams), and his childhood sweetheart Elmira (Jacquelyn Piro). Another female character, a Whore (Amy McWilliams), is the only one not historically based.

“The musical is about Poe and his women mingled with snippets of his life,” says Mr. Schaeffer. “The great artists are the tormented ones. But what happens if you take the torture and suffering away — does their creativity go away along with it?”

Mr. Conner stumbled upon a book of Poe’s poems in a bookstore’s discount bin and was struck by the musicality of his verse — a musicality for which Poe was panned by critics in his day. “It was particularly his poetry, filled with meter, rhythm and dramatic sounds that inspired me,” says Mr. Conner. “Poe felt that true beauty was the combination of music and poetry.”

He wrote five songs based on the poems and set them aside to concentrate on his career as an actor. Two years ago, a twist of fate worthy of a Poe tale occurred. His roommate’s lamp from Ikea caught fire and burned down the house. All that was salvaged was the music based on Poe’s work, which a firefighter covered with a blanket. Mr. Schaeffer offered his house to Mr. Conner and his partner while they found new digs. “I heard Matt playing the songs on my piano, and I loved them,” he said. “Just from those five songs I commissioned ‘Nevermore.’ The music is weird — pop and rock, but also very classical. It’s not opera, it’s not musical theater — I don’t know what it is.”

Rather than trying to impose a structure or logic, Mr. Schaeffer just went with the mind-bendy aspects of “Nevermore.”“The show runs 90 minutes, and there are no breaks for applause — you just go on the ride,” he says. “The emotions and the eroticism just wash over you — it is something that is felt and sensed rather than processed solely by the brain.”

Miss Barnes, when writing the book, was taken by the idea of Poe seeking another reality. “In his delirium, created by alcohol and drugs, he entered a separate dimension,” she says. “His poems come out of the emotional state he was experiencing at the time.”

Similarly, Mr. Schaeffer did not want a linear show, more of a mosaic that would show the shards of Poe’s consciousness. “When we were creating the show, we knew we wanted to create a sensory world, so we came up with the idea of a floating island and all of these nasty, twisted trees,” he continues. “I kept thinking about the work of Tim Burton — how gothic and playful and elegant his movies are. I wanted this musical to be similar, to play tricks on your perceptions.”

Conjuring that world turned out to be the hardest thing Mr. Schaeffer has done. “It was so nonlinear, but I had to make sure the story came through. I was always trying to think of the show differently — not having people standing around talking onstage. There is lots of overlapping scenes — the show never stops,” he says. “Even something as conventional as a funeral procession had to be re-thought. Having the characters filing down to the graveyard seemed so boring, so I had them moving as if on a highway. The actors asked me later if that idea came from a bad dream I had or something.”

He also wanted “Nevermore” to be heart-poundingly erotic, emphasizing that Poe’s works were both a fright and a turn-on. In fact, the much-older Poe seduces Virginia by telling her scary stories, giving her goose bumps in places her mother would not approve.

“The audience may get a little squirmy in their seats,” Mr. Schaeffer warns, “but no one takes their clothes off — they don’t have to.”

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