Presented by Anthem Theatre Company
A Collection of Horrors by Edgar Allan Poe
Conceived and Directed by Bryn Boice
Featuring Anthem company members Michael Poignand, Johnny Kinsman, Siobhan Carroll, Olivia Z. Cote, Sarah Gazdowicz, Jessica Golden, Katie Grindeland, Luz Lopez, Jessica Scout Malone, Eric McGowan, Christine Power, C. Padraig Sullivan, and Elena Toppo.
Designed by Bridget K. Doyle and Theona White
Review by Gillian Daniels
(Boston, MA) Berenice, Annie, Ligeia, Rowena, Annabel Lee, Morella, Lenore, and so many others– an archetype with many names collapsed into a single, waifish woman with hair that hangs loose over her shoulders and a hint of otherworldliness. Meanwhile, the heroes and narrators of these stories are boiled down into the figure of a melancholic, bow-tied, possibly opium-addled narrator.
The woman in question is always on the verge of death, or has already died, but in the wake of that death, she is somehow made more beautiful, powerful, and entrancing. In Anthem Theatre Company’s My Fascination with Creepy Ladies, these characters are now four, leering, dancing, and laughing Creepy Ladies that haunt eight, terrorized, pale, bow-tied Poes.
There is no singular actor who is Lenore or Morella or the parade of masculine narrators bemoaning the illnesses, deaths, and dark revivals of their beloved brides. Every actor—only listed in the program as “ensemble”— passes the text of each narrative between the others. They recite the stories whole cloth.
Their deliveries may be different—Olivia Z. Cote’s Poe is quavering while Christine Power’s Poe proclaims, Luz Lopez’s Creepy Lady creeps while Siobhan Carroll’s Creepy Lady intimidates—but they are all fragments of the same characters, pieces of the same narrator. The effect is, indeed, creepy. As the audience, you are often surrounded, as if you’re inside a funhouse of mirrors that refuses to show your own reflection. It’s an impressive use of theater. I’m delighted by the choreography, Bridget K. Doyle’s lighting, and Theona White’s costume design.
It’s also hard to keep things straight with the level of repetition in the text. Each story featured has Poe establish a tone of menace and horror where a young woman is introduced only to eventually succumb to a premature death or have already died. It’s not a bad trick to get the audience invested, by any means, but wow, it really is the same trick over and over.
Poe’s distinctive style, grim and vulnerable, lends itself well to parody. So well, in fact, that, 150 years after their publication, many people first encounter the works of the Gothic author in the form of a piece of comedy, like the Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror (1990) or even Quoth the Raven in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld book series (1983-2015). This is one of the reasons I found My Fascination with Creepy Ladies so oddly, beautifully jarring: it’s a sincere recitation of Poe’s work. The adaptation drift is invisible. In looking to reproduce these stories as written, there are few, if any, twists.
The closest this show moves toward parody is with the sly wink of its title. But this is not a comedy or pastiche. No, it’s a uniquely performed reading with a chorus of whispers, sighs, and bursts of song in between works.
The boldest change the show makes is that it suggests these different pieces fit into an autobiographical framework, the result of Poe’s trauma from marrying his 13-year old cousin, Virginia Clemm, who slowly and painfully died from tuberculosis. The truth of Poe’s life was a bit more complex, of course. The deaths of young women he saw firsthand and his romances are not limited to Virginia. Accounts of his erratic behavior, gambling, philandering, and substance abuse help complicate the simple story of a heartbroken romantic, but this is a production more interested in archetype than the messiness of biographical fact.
It’s a nice, creepy treat for Halloween. It didn’t linger for me, mostly because I really was expecting a fourth-wall breaking, meta story that deconstructed or even critiqued the beloved literary figure. With all the fictional women he’s killed to advance the sorrow of his male leads, I would be just fine with Poe’s star status examined in a different light. My Fascination with Creepy Ladies, however, is instead an exact, chilling, and obsessive love letter to Poe, the macabre, and the work he brought into the world.