Another Disappointing Play:
Another review in the form of a hastily and poorly written sonnet
There is such joy and fear for you to know,
If you read from words upon any page,
That were written by Edgar Allan Poe,
So why not go and see it on a stage?
But even with my expectations low,
I found myself with want to look away,
And not because of fear nor gore — no, no!
But from the poor quality of this play.
Could not a writer usher forth a word,
To tell a tale that could reach to my heart?
See more by them? I’ll quote that big black bird,
Red faced, be shamed to death, if I do start!
Clowdus, you are such a talentless hack,
I wish I could have my evening back.
That was cruel and, in all honesty, Clowdus probably can be argued to have some kinds of talent, but it worked so well in the sonnet. I should be ashamed. So should Brian Clowdus, though. The last time that I saw a lousy theatrical adaptation of Poe’s work, I wrote a sonnet, so I figured that I’d try again. This was way worse, though. I got the feeling that the folks with Lucidity Suitcase actually liked and respected Poe’s work and wanted to bring Poe’s work to audiences. What we got from Brian Clowdus Experiences was a series of vignettes that referenced, to various degrees, three of Poe’s stories and one of his poems more as a way of branding the evening’s spectacle than to give the brilliance of Poe’s work to the audience.
The idea was that the Wren’s Nest was an insane asylum and Edgar Allan Poe was a patient. He believed us all to be his guests for a dinner party. Four rooms flanked a hallway and each one had a nurse or doctor as a host. Poe would go into a room and the story (or poem) assigned to that room would be acted out with whomever the host was. Not everyone could fit in a single room, so the hosts of the remaining three would ad lib being creepy medical professionals with the guests. Poe went into each room three times and everyone should have had a chance to catch each vignette as well as interact with each of the hosts. Poe began with being interrogated by a police officer for the murder from the Tell Tale Heart then shouted at the Raven who said her catch phrase and danced with him. Next was a dinner party with a visit from someone in a red Mask who was very rude and violent but had absolutely nothing at all to do with The Masque of the Red Death, and ended with his “sister” singing and then him shutting her in a closet and her coming out and jumping on him and him freaking out. (Presumably she was supposed to be dead and he was interring her in the family crypt like in The Fall of the House of Usher, but it’s a pretty big stretch to get there from what they did.)
I managed to visit each of the four rooms when they weren’t activated by Poe’s presence at least once. Some of the hosts were more entertaining than others. Probably the best was Truman Griffin, but a lot of that was because he had a dinner table and a more coherent set of props that seemed give him a little story to play with. Courtney Morgan just tried to be creepy, questioning various audience members with questions that didn’t really lead anywhere and had lots of awkward silences. She made a young boy make the bed in the room, which he didn’t seem to mind at all. Shannon McCarren tried to make people feel uncomfortable by describing some of the horrible methods used in insane asylums in the 19th century and then threatening them. Robert Lee Hindsman shouted at people a lot. I kind of avoided his room because of some of the other audience members until one point when there weren’t that many people in there. That time he turned out the lights and made someone tell a story, which was kind of lame. He seemed to do a lot more with the audience members when I wasn’t there, such as one point when he kept coming out of the room and checking in on them to see if they’d done something or another that he’d asked with the chairs. None of these rooms were great but none were bad. I applaud the efforts of the performers and also kind of feel bad for them for having to do that over and over, night after night.
So, let me begin with the good. The basic structure of the evening wasn’t too bad. The bits where I got to play with the nurses was a nice diversion while waiting for something to happen. The performances weren’t bad. Shannon McCarren’s singing was good in the Fall of the House of Usher-ish vignette. In fact, of the four story-line performances, her singing was the only thing that I really enjoyed. I missed the first performance in that room but left the one I was in because I was annoyed by one of the other audience members so I ended up listening to her from outside. I then followed Poe in so that I could hear her in the next two rounds. It was the only performance that I attended twice and it wasn’t really that I enjoyed hearing McCarren that much so much as it was the only thing that I really enjoyed from the main story performance and there wasn’t really much else to do.
The bad was really bad. Let’s begin with the fact that the whole thing was a giant cliché stigmatizing not only people with mental heath issues, but also the delivery of mental healthcare. Really, this should have bothered SOMEONE involved in this enough to point it out. I mean, let’s say that you consider it too politically correct to ask you not to mock people who are weaker than you: the NRA still wants you to focus on mental health instead of the easy availability of guns. Really, Clowdus? Why do I even have to bring this up?
The performers did their best dealing with the audience but some of the audience members did get in the way. For example, they seemed to encourage one annoyingly talkative woman who watched the entire thing on the screen of her phone to talk even more and a big galoot (in the most affectionate sense of the term) found himself stuck in the closet with Madeline Usher, which made everyone laugh through what was supposed to be the most shocking part of the vignette.
I already mentioned that the vignettes were only somewhat related to their stories. Really, they were embarrassing. Here’s the thing: Clowdus put together something that might have been an enjoyable Halloween spectacle if they weren’t trying so hard (and failing) at keeping the Poe branding up. If he’d used some of Poe’s own words (they’re all in the public domain) or used other horror stories that actually lent themselves to performance in this kind of setting then it might have actually been good. I said above that Clowdus probably can be argued to have some kinds of talent and I think that they would show through if he’d get past the pretension to artistic depth that lead him to try to stage Poe or, in the case of his other gig running Serenbe Playhouse, Chekhov’s The Seagull. If he were to just focus on creating a grand spectacle and embrace the fact that you don’t need to pretend to be deep to create art that touches people then I think I might find some respect for him. As it stands, while I don’t begrudge anyone their enjoyment of his work, I find myself wanting to warn people away from any of his productions.