Catalyst Theatre's Nevermore

Dates and Venue January 23 - February 6, 2010 @ 8:00 pm, Tues @ 7:30pm, matinee Weds and Sat @ 2:00pm, no show Sun | Arts Club Theatre Company, Granville Island Stage

Writer, director, composer: Jonathan Christenson
Production Designer: Bretta Gerecke
Choreographer: Laura Krewski
Sound Designer: Wade Staples
Producer: Eva Cairns

Reviewers Olivia Bevan and RW Eberle

Edgar Allan Poe: mad genius or tormented artist? It’s hard to label a man whose real life and fictional creations blurred together so incoherently. During his 40 years, he experienced more than his fair share of death among those close to him, including his own wife, brother and mother. It’s not hard to imagine the role such personal struggles (together with his battle with alcoholism later in life) must have played in his evolution as a dark romanticist, or in the gothic work he produced.

Nevermore sets out not to create a true biography of his life but to depict something that might have been. Edgar Allan Poe often re-created himself, revising details of his life, often quite deliberately. We may never know exactly how he lived but from what we know and from what we are able to gather from his work, his short life was undoubtedly marred with tragedy.

If it is possible to play out a tragedy beautifully, Nevermore achieved just this. The brilliance was in the detail. The black and white Victorian-esk costumes had a macabre, Tim Burton type style that added grizzly gothic charm and character to the production. When on stage, every part of the actors came alive: from contorted faces to wide-open eyes there was rarely a time when any one character remained still….except in death. But even when dying the atmosphere created by such carefully choreographed sound and lighting was so chilling that, at times, I squirmed in my seat.

You don’t necessarily think of musicals as eerie. If your first thoughts are maids with pails spilling over with milk, or dames trussed up in layers of overly-frilly undergarments be prepared for a readjustment. The music of Nevermore brought animation and depth to the characters as, with comic-like sadness, they shared both the highs and, more often than not, the deep lows of Edgar Allan Poe’s life. Together the clarity of singing and score creativity set a tone that a spoken script alone could not have achieved—one that complemented the atmosphere so well it would be hard to imagine it without it.

Despite being a talented writer and poet, Edgar Allan Poe struggled to make a living out of this alone and instead employed his skills as an editor and literary critic. Over time, in his effort to achieve notoriety, he also achieved enemies prepared to slander his reputation even, it seems, upon death. We may never really know why he died as all medical records, including his death certificate were lost. But through his writing and through work such as Nevermore, we can imagine, just as he did, what might have been. OB


Strikingly original in its biographical vision and darkly edgy in its presentational style, Catalyst Theatre’s groundbreaking production of Nevermore: The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe sweeps its audience along on a robust rollercoaster ride ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime, from macabre relationships to intriguing malevolencies, from innocent serenades and luscious librettos to world weary sonatas and passionate contraltos. This play is an epic poem set to music, and performed with world class finesse by an acting troupe lavishly attired in postmodern costumes that outclass some of Tim Burton’s best work.

Costume Associate Sheena Haug merits mention for her distinctive and intricate designs. Also unique and compelling is the sensational work of choreographer Laura Krewski. But even more impressive than either of these admirable features of the play is the sensitive, passionate wit of writer Jonathan Christenson, who is also the able director and consummate composer for this tour de force performance.

Nevermore explores Poe’s tortured psyche by offering a glimpse into his early childhood, and a close up look at his sibling relationships. All actors play several parts, except Scott Shpeley, whose engaging presence as the wide-eyed, sallow cheeked Edgar is an able thespian’s monument to the melancholy spirit of the great author. It would be easy for a less experienced actor, when inhabiting such a role, to settle into a parody or callow caricature, but Mr. Shpeley never settles for anything less than intense authenticity.

With only one intermission, this approximately two hour performance is a rigorous test of stamina for the actors, both physically and vocally, with most songs demanding considerable skill. Songs of woeful innocence in Poe’s early age quickly give way to songs of morbid experience in his adolescence, and finally coalesce with dulcet and doleful blends of personal betrayal and haunting hallucinatory visions.

Sheldon Elter is a dazzler of buoyant optimism as Edgar’s brother Henry, but the real show stealer is Beth Graham whose ebullience and vivacity as little Rosalie Poe is delightful. Ms. Graham adds deft flourish to each of her other major roles as well, flexing some rather amusing maternal muscle as Edgar’s foster mother, Fanny Allan.

Nevermore marks an ongoing annual collaborative bent, a movement of synergy that brings together the Arts Club Theatre Company, The Cultch, and PuSh. If this performance is an indication of what we can expect from such collaborations, then let’s embrace unity in diversity within the arts. Also worth mentioning is the fact that the Vancouver 2010 Cultural Olympiad partnered together with the aforementioned triad in hosting this Catalyst Production. Nevermore is a little piece of the Olympic flame that will shine on like a crazy diamond in my heart long after the last medal has been handed out this year. RWE

© 2010 Olivia Bevan & RW Eberle