Terror. Torment. Murder. Madness. Supernatural forces.
All these and more come into play in the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, a Boston native who was a Maryland resident at the end of his life. His stories remain popular today, nearly two centuries after his death at age 40. Even his Baltimore grave has been surrounded by mystery. It was, from 1949 to 2009, famously visited by an unknown person known as the “Poe Toaster” on the anniversary of his birth each year. The “Poe Toaster,” whose last-known visit was on Jan. 19, 2009, would leave behind three roses and a bottle of cognac.
Community Players of Salisbury veteran Matt Bogdan is presenting a traveling show featuring some of Poe’s darker works at a variety of local venues.
“He is a popular writer still,” said Bogdan, “and his name is a draw. I taught Poe as a high school teacher and have studied most of the works that will be represented in the show.”
In true Poe tradition, there is a twist in Bogdan’s production, which features “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Raven,” “Annabel Lee,” “The Imp of the Perverse,” “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Black Cat.”
“All of them are memorized word for word,” said Bogdan. “They are tellings, not readings.”
Although Poe’s stories feature male characters, Bodgan has incorporated three women as moderators who play the roles of women in Poe’s life. They help provide biographical information about the writer and also help with transitions in dialogue. Their parts were written by Bogdan with one exception, “The Black Cat,” which was composed by Martha Pfeiffer.
Judy Hearn, Devin Bradley and Kim Cuesta play, respectively, the roles of Poe’s mother, his wife and his fiancé.
“This show provides a unique opportunity for the actors to demonstrate their abilities,” said Bogdan, “relying not only on memory, but voice and body language and movements to portray a character who has a horrible story to tell.”
Bogdan chose the memorization aspect to keep his memorization skills sharp during the Covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions.
“Voice, hands, pauses, emphasis -- all those things go into the telling of a good story,” he said. Bogdan has taken on the telling of “The Black Cat,” a 25-minute monologue that concludes the show. He reached out to other members of Players, asking if they would take on another of Poe’s works to help him put together a show.
Salisbury lawyer Mark Tyler has memorized four standard pages of text from Poe’s “Annabel Lee,” Poe’s final poem. It follows a typical theme followed by Poe -- tragic or ill-fated love, a lost love interest in this case named Annabel Lee, in which envious angels took away the main character’s betrothed.
Music is a well-known memorization technique. Especially if you are going to be singing the text you are memorizing.
“I heard a musical version of Annabel Lee performed by the alternative rock band BRMC,” said Tyler. “It is very dark and somber music, which I think is fitting for Poe.”
Learning the poem with music, therefore, makes the memorization much easier.
“Although I don’t think it is technically a ballad, it really has the feel of a ballad, which makes having it performed with music very logical and enjoyable.”
Tyler’s performance harkens back to the early days of theatrical performance, when balladeers and troubadours engaged audiences, he pointed out.
Tyler also partners with Sam Barnes to tell the tale of “The Cask of Amontillado,” a short story that takes place during a festival in Italy.
“It’s a revenge tale,” said Bogdan.
“I think Poe puts it all out there,” said Tyler, “the family motto is ‘Nemo mi inpune lacessiq” which translates ‘no one can harm me unpunished.’ I quickly realized the motto is really communicating why my character, Montressor, is taking Fortunato into the crypts.”
Sam Barnes has taken on the role of Fortunato.
“Walking is one of the best ways to memorize. It’s like muscle memory,” said Barnes.
Jason Bruce is performing the short story “Imp of the Perverse.”
“The concept is that the imp itself is almost the opposite of a conscience,” said Bruce. “You’ve done something (good or bad) and gotten away with it, there’s no need to revisit it or worry about it, but something in the back of your mind has a self-destructive tendency. It’s almost like you’re on a hot streak and somebody comes along and point it out to you. If you do nothing, you’ll be fine, but we as humans want to tinker with everything, and we wind up screwing things up ourselves.”
It’s Bruce’s first long monologue.
“It’s very different and very difficult,” he said. “Poe is so distinct in the way he wrote and spoke, it’s very hard to avoid paraphrasing. You can’t paraphrase when you are memorizing something word for word.”
There are no sets, no costumes and virtually no props used in the production.
“I don’t think you need all that with Poe, because his writing is so descriptive,” said Tyler, “the words provide enough detail that the absence of those things doesn’t deprive the audience of anything.”