Friday, November 04, 2011

Mortar but no Mystery

My Facebook friend Workshop Theatre Company posted a link recently to an article by Greg Oliver Bodine about Edgar Allen Poe. I can't say I agree with Bodine's suggestions that if Poe was alive now he might be a detective or a writer for a television crime show like "Law and Order" - thanks to his raging alcoholism Poe could barely keep his shit together well enough to ensure he got paid reasonably for his sporadic output - he made $9 for "The Raven."

But the quality of the article's insights about Poe is not of much consequence since no doubt its main purpose is to publicize Bodine's one-man show POE TIMES TWO, currently running at the Workshop Theatre Company. And Bodine's strength isn't really writing, it's acting.

I cast him as the Duke in the January 2007 production of my HUCK FINN and was so impressed by his acting that I wrote and produced an adaptation of "Jane Eyre" just so I could see what he would do with the role of Rochester - and I was not disappointed.

The tag-line for POE TIMES TWO is "Twin tales of mystery, murder... and mortar!" which is cute and alliterative, but only the murder and mortar are accurate: there is no mystery. At least, not mystery in the usual sense of a detective story. The mystery is "why do some people become homicidal maniacs?" And neither the original stories nor the plays solve that one.

The show is also being touted as scary, but unless it has changed quite a bit since the first production, which I saw in 2007, it really isn't. And I'm someone who scares pretty easily, so much so that the last entire horror/suspense movie I've seen is... never. I had my eyes closed for most of Jaws (which I saw in the theatre) and I fast-forwarded through The Sixth Sense and Silence of the Lambs - and I knew the outcome of both before watching anyway. I am a huge scairdy cat when it comes to this kind of thing, so if I wasn't scared, well, it's because it just ain't scary.

POE TIMES TWO is comprised of Poe's short stories "Cask of Amontillado" and "The Black Cat" performed solo by Bodine. The plays are very faithful to the originals except that each has a framing device in which the homicidal maniac is in the hands of the law and is confessing to the crime - in the case of Cask to a jury. In the case of The Black Cat, the narrator is already in prison (as in the original) but Bodine has him writing his confession down as a cautionary tale for others. I like the framing devices but if anything they work to reduce any mysterious aspect of the stories even further.

Bodine put together another show, WICKED TAVERN TALES that was performed by other people (and which I also saw) that includes those two stories and THE TELLTALE HEART. I think Bodine opted not to do HEART in his one-man show because it's performed most often of all Poe's stories. But there's a good reason why that is - because it's the best story.

It's interesting to note that the structures of The Tell-tale Heart and of The Black Cat are quite similar - a person is angry at someone, kills them and then the crime is revealed through a sound. The main difference in structure is that in Heart the killer confesses due to hearing the heart still beating after the victim's death, while in The Black Cat it is an actual cat's yowling that leads to the revelation.

The Tell-tale Heart doesn't work so well because it's a mystery - it works because of the psychological drama of the narrator recounting how he heard the heart relentlessly beating, which is presumabely his conscience at work.

All these tales are told first-person in the original works but only The Tell-tale Heart gives no clue as to the identity of the narrator. It's always assumed to be a man, but Bodine wrote the part for a female actor and deserves much credit for that refreshing and progressive innovation.

Cask of Amontillado is the least of the three tales, both in the original and in Bodine's version. It's just a nasty piece of work: the narrator, Montresor has unspecified grievances against Fortunato, so he lures him into a catacombs, gets him drunk and walls him up to let him die. Although the original is even worse - he gets away with it for 50 years, as he tells us. At least Bodine has him caught and punished.

But in any case, there is no mystery, it's simply a tale of pointless cruelty. Cask is performed first in POE TIMES TWO and I was so appalled by it I almost walked out during the change-over to The Black Cat. I thought "what was the point of that?" And I still don't know. I don't see the edification or the entertainment value in watching a guy tell us, without remorse, about a horrible thing he did. Even if he is found guilty for it. And the Montresor character is so relentlessly cold and heartless, there's very little even Bodine can do with it. He's pretty much one-note - arrogant and unrepentant.

But I didn't walk out and was relieved to find that The Black Cat was much better than Cask, although not especially because of the story, which is another dolorous recounting of cruelty, and made more appalling by the double cruelty of the narrator maiming his pet and murdering his wife.

The narrator of The Black Cat suggests that heavy drinking is to blame for his turning evil, which hardly seems to cover it, and during the play we see him sobered up and looking small and meek and vulnerable - his prison uniform looks like pajamas. Mostly he is consumed with remorse and Bodine works that like a true Master of Fine Arts. Not everybody has done the awful things that the narrator has done, but everybody knows what remorse - or at least regret - feels like - and Bodine provokes a performer-audience empathetic connection through his skillful and nuanced rendering of the character.

So POE TIMES TWO has artistic value - but no thanks to CASK OF AMONTILLADO and little thanks to THE BLACK CAT, except as a springboard for Bodine's excellent acting. Although I think he was even better in JANE EYRE.

Fun fact - in spite of Mark Twain's praise for "Murders of the Rue Morgue" he was generally not impressed by Poe's work, as revealed in this letter. Although he's even less impressed by Jane Austen and I have to agree with him there.