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Monday, January 26, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 17.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
The Daily
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University Theatre gets experimental in An Evening with Poe
University Theatre experiments with a variety of forms, time periods, theatrical styles and directorial concepts.
Credit:Brent Nicastro

University Theatre is taking a "Nightmare Before Christmas" approach to holiday programming this year with An Evening with Poe (through Dec. 8 at Vilas Hall's Hemsley Theatre).

The culmination of an entire semester's work, the show has a large company of MFA candidates and senior theater majors present their collaborative interpretations of nearly two dozen of Edgar Allan Poe's poems and short stories. They experiment with a variety of forms, time periods, theatrical styles and directorial concepts. The result is a 90-minute collage of familiar and lesser-known Poe works, some of which illuminated the material, and some of which obscured it. Overall it was a thought-provoking evening filled with creative energy.

In the dramaturg's notes, Noah Jeffries describes the process for staging the piece: Students from various theater specialties (acting, directing, design) each tried out new roles. Actors took on directing duties. Directors worked on script development. The company collectively shaped the production, taking creative risks along the way.

The production starts out on an exciting and inventive note: As the audience files into the theater, they are greeted by cast members wearing a lab coats and given a mini-examination before taking their seats. This is an engaging way to introduce the first piece of the evening, The Masque of the Red Death (Part I), which deals with a terrifying, infectious plague that everyone in the room has been exposed to.

Likewise, in several other pieces, an unexpected setting brought Poe's work into a modern context. The Bells (Part I) benefited from an introduction focusing on modern commuters, each attached to a computer, phone or MP3 player making various beeps and ringing sounds. When the devices suddenly stopped working, the poetry began. The morality fairy tale Hopfrog struck a lovely balance between succinctly dramatizing its source material and retaining the voice of the author. Narrator Trevor Rees added a twist of his own at the end of this piece, and was a standout performer of the evening.

Another simple but extremely effective interpretation of Poe's work was The Oval Portrait, which dramatized the sad tale of an artist whose passion for his work overshadows his relationship with his new wife. Best of all, the standard high school English class assignment, The Pit and the Pendulum, was transformed in performance. This visually evocative and concentrated horror story was easily the most emotionally arresting piece of the evening.

At times, however, the performance was choppy and uneven. Several actors seemed overwhelmed by their lines, reducing their speeches to stiff -- or simply loud -- recitations. Also problematic were basic set changes between each story; the audience spent as much time in the dark as they did watching the scenes. David Furamoto tried to weave the pieces together with an impressive range of instruments, from bells and drums to rainsticks, but he often drowned out the actors.

That said, for fans of Edgar Allen Poe, people who enjoy creative interpretation of classics, or anyone who would like an alternative to standard holiday fare, An Evening with Poe is well worth seeing. And if seeing University Theatre's take on Poe favorites like The Tell-Tale Heart, Annabel Lee or The Raven prompts you to imagine your own dramatic interpretation of those well-worn verses, so much the better.

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