Kevin Martin's one-man incarnation of Poe started with the tiny audience seated in the basement "theatre" face-to-face with what looked like a Madame Tussaud representation of the famous author, who came to life after some appropriately Romantic music and a brief incantation of his poetry on the tape recorder.
Every tic and bead of sweat register in a seance before an audience in which a full house might number a dozen souls, and Martin didn't disappoint in his rendition of the troubled writer.
That the lighting complement comprised two tiny PARs and two or three candles, and the sound equipment a cheap (maybe too cheap) tape recorder, shows how little is needed to succeed Off-Off-Broadway. The theatre, a low basement below an art gallery, which must be entered by climbing delicately down stone steps and stooping into what feels like a tomb, was entirely appropriate for such a venture and set the mood right away.
The excerpts from Poe's letters show a proud son of the South (actually born in Boston but orphaned to foster parents in Virginia). He succumbs to poverty and drink, perhaps not in that order, and to his share of life's sorrows, such as his wife's lingering illness and death.
He is conscious of his decline into drink -- sometimes staying away from the demon, sometimes indulging himself -- always looking clear-eyed into the eyes of his fate.
Martin's most powerful moments came when Poe's demons come to life in his poetry, notably in a recitation of The Raven, which had the effect of bringing the viewer into the middle of an alcoholic hallucination. Martin modeled his rendition more after the mumbling of a man on the verge of madness than after a poet showing off his verses.
Martin also delivered a touching epilog, as the doctor who attended Poe in his last illness, diagnosed as delirium tremens (which might actually have been an overlooked case of rabies). His clinical account brings more pathos to Poe than the poet could conjure in all his alternating bouts of rage, pride, and self-pity.
Perhaps the limitation of the work is inevitable -- Poe's writing is intense and important, but it hardly offers a broad scope. And his character is unable to surmount and survive his weaknesses, which are drink and pride (again, not necessarily in that order). (The incessant clicking on and off of one or another lighting instrument, while perhaps necessary given the limitations of the venue, was distracting. And it was a pity that the tiny space and the fire laws made it impossible to shut the cellar doors, almost directly overhead. But these are the minor inconveniences that must be endured in the pursuit of Art.)
All in all, though, this was a performance to remember and deserved
a (slightly) bigger space and larger audiences.