"Red-Eye to Havre de Grace' at Live Arts Festival

Once upon a midnight dreary

Sheeny, Bortolussi: Haunted by a raven.
Sheeny, Bortolussi: Haunted by a raven.

Edgar Allan Poe left us with many memorable demons, and Red-Eye to Havre de Grace adds one to the catalogue: the troubled spirit of his deceased wife and cousin, Virginia. She bedevils Poe while he is on a simple mission— a train trip— and so distracts him that she becomes a possible contributor to his death.

Red-Eye deals with the trip Poe began on September 27, 1849, in Richmond, Virginia, bound for New York, where he intended to meet Virginia's mother (his mother-in-law as well as his aunt) about some ongoing financial arrangements. He stays over in Philadelphia, but the spirit swipes his suitcase and, in chasing her around the station and retrieving it, Poe mistakenly boards a train bound for Havre de Grace, Maryland.

The conductor recognizes him and puts him off at Baltimore. Poe was one of America's most recognized figures— so identifiable that he donned rustic clothing and even shaved off his moustache to try to make himself anonymous— yet he managed to disappear.

Trapped by success

A few days later, Poe was found unconscious in a tavern; he was taken to a hospital, where he died several days later, taking the mystery of his last week with him. "We don't know where the hell he was," says the Park Ranger (played by Jeremy Wilhelm).

While Poe's troubled psyche is fighting off Virginia, Poe the writer is trapped in his own success. He seeks attention for his magnum opus, a 40,000-word prose poem titled Eureka, which had been published the year before; but no one wants to hear it.

In a reading before the Philadelphia Literary Society, he is stopped, someone whispers in his ear, and it's clear that the message is, "They want to hear 'The Raven,'" because he tosses the Eureka copy on the floor and recites "The Raven" not only from memory but also at an impossibly fast speed. Poe doesn't give a damn about "The Raven" anymore; he's forced into endlessly repeating his own creation; and he's furious.

Body and soul


The play combines these works. "The Raven" concerns a dead lover who can't be forgotten ("Suddenly there came a tapping, / As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door"). Eureka, which puts forth a "cosmography of the universe," makes the case that the soul continues to exist after the body dies.

Red-Eye dramatizes that premise on stage. It's as if Poe, with all his ratiocination on the connections between the spiritual and material worlds, now must live them out.

The experience is driving him mad, as he progressively loses control of his mind and emotions. Poe's preferred refuges— opium, brandy— merely hasten his disintegration.

As Poe, Ean Sheeny captures both the poet's dismay at the world's inattention to his new discovery (the real Poe claimed it was more important than gravity), and his gradual psychological collapse. We care about him from start to finish— a crucial element because Sophie Bortolussi, as Virginia, nearly steals the show.

Death without peace

Maybe she actually does. Virginia appears first through some onstage grass. Poe has opened his suitcase and removed strips of artificial turf, and is soothing the soles of his feet, when, from a trapdoor underneath the sod, fingers, hands and arms appear, then her body, making its way to him, where she clings ambiguously.

Is this spirit seeking reunion or torment? Are her actions performed in play, or anger, or irony? Has Poe's notion of uniting the material and spiritual deprived her of the peace that death— of tuberculosis, after much suffering— ought to bring?

Or is Virginia entirely a figment of his psychosis? The association of madness with genius goes back to antiquity; it was a vigorous psychiatric assumption in Poe's century; and we still love contemplating the relationship.

A dancer's body

In any case, Bortolussi, who was trained in the Martha Graham tradition of modern dance, moves her body as I've never seen before: emerging from the sod as though she's weightless, not of this earth; writhing across stage like a wounded snake, descending from a balcony via a knotted sheet, as silent as a ghost— and as intensely white, which the original Virginia was said to have been.

On top of these stellar performances, director Thaddeus Phillips (also credited for the stage design) has created a set that gives the audience precisely the perspective it needs at any given moment.

As Red-Eye opens, Poe is working at his desk, but we see him from "above"— the desk is on its side, the desktop facing the audience; Sheeny, as Poe, is writing vertically; we see chiefly the top of his head. The play closes with Poe lying atop a piano and virtually incoherent as he frantically tries to express his theory of the universe for the last time. He is being tied down with piano strings, and we see it all, reflected in a canted mirror.

Backstage devils

In the most ingenious part of the staging, Poe starts his reading of Eureka at a lectern in front of a partially opened curtain; he's facing the audience, the traditional vantage point. As he's forced into reciting "The Raven," he stumbles backward and encounters Virginia, who is physically attacking him.

Upstage, a curtain opens with a lectern visible, and Poe continues his "Raven" recitation there, facing the stage's deep recesses, with his back now to the audience— a reversal of convention, which reveals what's happening backstage, where Poe struggles with Virginia and his other devils.

A real Park Ranger?

As Poe grows increasingly disoriented, the world retains its bearings, represented by Wilhelm's Park Ranger and the various other stolid characters Wilhelm plays, such as a hotel clerk, a train conductor, and John Sartain, a 19th-Century artist and friend of Poe's. Wilhelm's shuffling manner in introducing the play was so convincing that many in the audience thought he really worked for the National Park Service, which operates Poe's Philadelphia house on Seventh Street as a historic site.

Wilhelm also plays the singer of various Poe letters translated into songs (accompanied by his brother David). If this isn't enough, surtitles are projected above the stage. I didn't notice them until the play was nearly over, which is just as well: I wouldn't want to have missed a jot of the business on stage.♦


To read a response, click here.


Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Want previews of our latest stories about arts and culture in Philadelphia? Sign up for our newsletter.