It’s hard to imagine a more perfect setting for Killing an Evening with Edgar Allan Poe a one-man, pre-Halloween tour de force. It takes place in a period mansion, built in 1832, in New York’s East Village, a four-story edifice that looks as it it were designed to showcase Poe’s demented, if poetic, output. Appropriately, the front door of the building, now the Merchant’s House Museum, is adorned with an ominous black wreath, and the audience descends first into the basement and then up a creaky, narrow staircase, finally entering a dimly lit sitting room. It’s a small space, and as the audience files in they immediately notice that at one end of the room is a large, wooden coffin covered with lilies, uncomfortably close to the few dozen seats that line either side of the room.
Greeting each patron as they enter is John Kevin Jones, attired in a black nineteenth-century suit. Jones, tall and elegant in appearance, sports an arresting shock of gray amid his dark coiffeur, and his neatly trimmed beard is flecked with gray. He is, it turns out, the veteran actor and the co-creator of the evening’s entertainment. He’s not in character, quite – not yet – as he engages patrons in light banter. But as we take our places, with the coffin looming near, we shift uneasily as we look around the room. Under an antique chandelier that glows darkly overhead, surrounded by dark wood paneling, elaborately carved moldings, and a pair of floor-to-ceiling columns, it feels more like we’re attending a wake than a performance.
Enacted by Jones, and directed by Rhonda Dodd (who also co-adapted Poe’s work for the evening), the hour-long show includes reenactments of two of Poe’s most famous stories, The Tell-Tale Heart and The Cask of Amontillado, along with a dramatic rendition of the poet’s masterwork, The Raven.
The event is presented by the Summoners Ensemble Theatre (SET), a company founded in 1993 by alumni of New York’s Circle in the Square Theatre, in association with the Merchant’s House Museum, a National Historic Landmark beautifully preserved inside and out. So reminiscent of the era is the venue that one can imagine Poe himself sitting in that very room furiously scribbling a draft of one of his short stories and, indeed, according to Jones, Poe began writing The Cask of Amontillado in a building that still stands just a few blocks away.
As the show begins, Jones’ gentlemanly, amiable persona instantly transforms, and as he utters the famous opening words of The Tell-Tale Heart (“True! – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?”) Jones shape-shifts into the giddily unhinged plotter obsessed with the eerie, pale blue, film-covered eye of the unsuspecting old man that he maniacally smothers to death. Skillfully, and not without some menace in the close quarters of the room, insisting that he is not at all deranged – not at all! – as he strolls up and down the narrow aisle separating the rows of theatre-goers Jones uses the tricks of the acting trade in a manner that makes each of us wonder if we could be his next victim.
In The Cask of Amontillado – like The Tell-Tale Heart, presented almost verbatim from Poe’s stories, minimally adapted and with a few cuts -- Jones brings to life another of Poe’s imagined murderers. But Montresor, the wine aficionado who walls up his victim, is a different sort of killer than the manic assassin who pleads with us to believe in his sanity in Heart. In Amontillado, Montresor is equally mad, but in this case quietly self-assured about the justice of his revenge plot, and Jones slips effectively into this character, too, in spirit bringing the audience along with him into the dank cellar where the deed is done.
Jones closes the show with The Raven. In introducing the classic poem, he tells us that whereas some readers and performers have thundered through it, with sturm und drang, Jones views it as a powerful description of sorrow and lost love which deserves gentler treatment. Consequently, the rendition he delivers mesmerized the opening night audience with the work’s rhythmic rhymes and meter, conveying well, in contrast to The Raven’s stoic coldness, the character’s crescendo of unbearable pain of loss.
Summoners Ensemble Theatre Plans Reprise
Killing an Evening with Edgar Allan Poe has just ten scheduled performances through October 31 (Halloween, of course). On opening night, as the applause for The Raven died down, Jones explained that it’s a showcase run, designed to see what works and what doesn’t, and that he and SET – where he serves as executive director – have plans to bring it back, perhaps in 2019, in an expanded version. In the meantime, Jones and SET will present Dickens’ A Christmas Carol at the Merchant’s House later this year.
Thru October 31
Sunday, October 14 at 7PM
Monday, October 15 at 7PM
Tuesday, October 16 at 7PM
Monday, October 22 at 7PM
Tuesday, October 23 at 7PM
Wednesday, October 31 at 6:30PM
Wednesday, October 31 at 8:30PM
Merchant’s House Museum
(29 E. 4th Street)
Manhattan, New York
For tickets visit the KILLING AN EVENING WITH EDGAR ALLEN POE website or call (800) 838-3006.
Note: Seating is strictly limited to 40 per performance.
Images Courtesy of Summoners Ensemble Theatre, unless otherwise indicated.
Bob Dreyfuss is an independent journalist based in New York City and Cape May, New Jersey, who has written extensively for Rolling Stone, The Nation, The New Republic, Mother Jones, and many other magazines. He has served as a member of the board of directors for Cape May Stage, an equity theatre in New Jersey, where he profiled dozen of actors for the company’s weekly newsletter. He currently serves on the board of The Upstart Creatures, a New York theatre company. Onstage, he has appeared as Egeus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and as Delivery Man in Barefoot in the Park, and he is currently writing a full-length play about the late Senator John McCain. He has appeared on numerous radio and television programs, including the PBS Newshour, Fox News, Democracy Now!, and MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” and has traveled widely, including reporting from Iran, Vietnam, China, and Tanzania.