Review: Raven-Winged Hours by The Archive Theater Company
by David Glen Robinson
A new production focused on Edgar Alan Poe has just opened in Austin. Raven-Winged Hours at the Jourdan Bachman Pioneer Farms in northeast Austin. It's produced by The Archive Theater, led by Jennifer Rose Davis. Chris Fontanes of Bottle Alley Theatre directs. Theirs is an auspicious conjunction of theatrical forces.
It is surprising, really, that the literature of Edgar Allan Poe has not ramified further through popular culture. Certainly, it is represented iconically by the black-wearing Goth culture of insular aspect from the 1990s; but not all the goth adherents know the sources of many of their icons, symbols, and esthetics. Poe's own struggle for due recognition throughout his life worsened his doubts about his literary voice and authenticity.
The modern Austin theatre community, however, “gets” Poe in a big way. More than a decade ago, the edgy, short-lived Weird City Theatre gave us Grotesque and Arabesque: Poe Retold, an evening of Poe’s horror stories tied to the Poe Toaster phenomenon: the real-life mysterious figure who left gifts at Poe’s grave in Baltimore (CTXLT review HERE). And in 2018 Michael McKelvey's in-your-face Doctuh Mistuh Productions staged their original musical Nevermore: The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe to acclaim (CTXLT reviews HERE, HERE, and HERE)
Raven-Winged Hours is a marvelous work. Plenty of theatre reviews are no more than lazy lists of superlatives. Raven-Winged Hours is one of the few productions that deserves that much praise.
The script adapted from several of Poe's stories shines brightest in the staging and production values. It's essentially a series of enactments of Poe’s short stories, introduced and narrated (and, in the case of “Berenice”, enacted) by Poe himself, portrayed by Joe Kelley. Every inch of the playing space is in service to the theatrical imagination, from the mother’s bedchamber in “A Tell-Tale Heart” to the deep winding grotto of “The Cask of Amontillado.” The complexities of staging were compounded by the room. Wessels Hall has the span of a Texas dance hall, which it formerly was. Its unrestricted openness gifted the theatre world with a thrust stage. Everything was out in full view of audiences and no proscenium curtain concealed stage artifice. The configuration is very common in twenty-first century theatre, and solutions to stage logistics range from the lame (actors in character walking out to move props and furniture) to the sublime.
Raven-Winged Hours lies in the upper end of that range. Stage management blends seamlessly with the stories. The play achieved this simple brilliance with the ancient device of a chorus, established from the first moments..
Lights faded up on Poe in his library, the setting of “The Raven,” a mossy, Baroque creation designed by Jennifer Rose Davis with her builders Cory Krug and James Barnes. As Poe reads and writes, the black-clad chorus members drift in slowly, one by one, to sniff at the mold and the whisky bottles, point out “many a tome of forgotten lore,” and peer over Poe’s shoulder. They are the ghosts of his characters, come back to haunt his memories or emergin to be born soon as principal characters in the stories about to be enacted. Thereafter, the chorus assumes the invisibility of familiarity as they prepare or change the set at need for stories in which they dance or chant or menace or mourn. The chorus has one constant: they keep the emotional atmosphere at a distinct chill. They positively shine in that chill in “The Masque of the Red Death” and “The Cask of Amontillado.” Adriana Fontánez receives due credit as Movement Choreographer (an oxymoron).
Chris Fontanes directed Joe Kelley to orate “The Raven” as a monologue, not with the cadences of the poem. And Kelley was very clear in his presentation while he moved to stage center, knowing that we the audience were following every familiar phrase. The emotional highs and lows of his narrative, especially fear, very much needed to be more distinct. The arch fear, the frisson of terror, the raising of the hackles at the “tapping at my chamber door,” so well induced by the poem, were indicated by Kelley with a barely raised eyebrow, perhaps a furtive glance at the door, and a conversational vocal tone throughout.
Despite that, the surprising success of his “The Raven” was that it was broken in two. By the time we arrived at the devastating second half of the poem, with Liz Waters’ black-clawed raven gripping the white bust of Pallas, we had already reeled from the terror of “A Tell-Tale Heart” and “Berenice” and knew these horrors were hauntingly present, embedded in Poe’s mind and soul. With the last lines, we plunged into the abyss.
And we were taken, sometimes emotionally kicking and screaming, through the core of Poe’s horror stories and one amazing poem. “The Oval Portrait” was a frightening story about great passion literally sucking the life out of one, out of sheer ambition. Depicted in shadow play, the story highlighted the vocal talents of Julius Alums and Remy Joslin. “Berenice,” featuring Liz Waters and Joe Kelley, depicted the loss of a partner by energy flow in the opposite direction, i.e., neglect. Berenice died of a condition termed catalepsy, probably not confirmed medically, . The program notes report that all the show’s stories and poem were written between 1842 and 1847, and the play was set in 1847, immediately after the death of Poe’s wife, Virginia Clemm Poe. One wonders if these two stories were Poe’s attempts at self-analysis, pondering in fiction his failing relationships and viewing them through a paranormal lens.
The entire cast performed in exemplary fashion: the credit for the chorus was listed simply as “All.” That accreditation was apt in this ensemble-heavy staging. The actors with major speaking parts were all multiply cast. Beyond those already mentioned, Gina Houston, Travis H. Williams, and Rebecca Greaves brought Poe’s dark universe to life with clear and flexible performances and chameleonic changes of character and emotionality. Merrick Milburn and NAZ capably carried out the rest of the heavy lifting in the ensemble work.
The core of this shining work, however, is the literary adaptation of Poe’s stories to create the script—"the book," as it is termed in musical theatre. The script pieces and dialogues between the stories were faithful Poe’s literary voice. He may have doubted that voice, but we do not. The adaptations of focal stories and “The Raven” created the flow and the dynamics theatre must have to attract and keep its audiences. The hardworking adapters—Jennifer Rose Davis, Adriana Fontánez, and Chris Fontanes—were unerring in their sensibilities and knowledge of what this art must be. Stage manager Lynn Schaffer Beaver and dramaturg Joe Stephenson edited the script. We hope to see and hear more of the work of this excellent literary team. Soon.
A huge, capable production team contributed greatly. Patrick Anthony continues to take full creative advantage of the LED revolution in lighting design. Jennifer Rose Davis and her assistant Jana Steen created innumerable period costumes. Vikki Schwarz and Chris Humphrey played instruments and gave musical direction to a seven-musician musical ensemble. Live music in theatre is always a treat.
Raven-Winged Hours, An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe runs until October 1, 2023, at Wells Branch Community Center after its run at Pioneer Farms. It is highly recommended to all.
Raven-Winged Hours, an Evening with Edgar Allan Poe
Produced by The Archive Theater and Pioneer Farms
Wessels Hall at Jourdan Bachman Pioneer Farms September 7-17, 2023
Wells Branch Community Center September 21-October 1, 2023
Both venues north Austin
September 07 - September 17, 2023
10621 Pioneer Farms Dr
Austin, TX, 78754
September 7 - 17, 2023
Pioneer Farms, Austin
Tickets $15 - $30; Table seating $30 - $35