Last Friday night I drove to the Irvington neighborhood on the east side of Indianapolis for the 2010 opening night of the funny-dark musical “Cabaret Poe.” This Q Artistry production is richly staged in the ballroom(?) on the top floor of the Irvington Lodge. The piece was written and directed by local performance artist Ben Asaykwee, based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe.
It is a real treat!
“Cabaret Poe” had its world premiere in Chicago in 2008 and its Indianapolis premiere in 2009. This was my first year to see it. Q Artistry’s Communications Coordinator Maria Meschi told me that they have re-worked the show and expanded it. I noted on Friday night that it ran longer than two hours, with one intermission, but the hours flew by. I got in free, but if I can carve out the time, I will go back at least once as a paying customer. You really get your money’s worth with this show.
What the Show Is About
“Cabaret Poe” uses original music, humor, theatrical effects, and more to respectfully re-imagine and present the stories and poems of Edgar Allan Poe. The performance ensemble includes several talented people, including three singer-actors, a dancer, and a five-member band.
According to my program, director Ben Asaykwee plays Zoilus, Renae Stone plays Morella, and Julie Lyn Barber plays Berenice. I did not recognize any of these character names, but a little research here at home reveals that they are characters from various Poe stories that I have not yet read and that are not otherwise part of the show. These three corpse-characters sing the show’s theme song but then the actor-singers become whoever they need to be to convey the other stories and poems.
Story selections include adaptations of “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and more. Poetry selections include “Anabel Lee,” “The Bells,” “The Raven,” and more.
The delicious “Cabaret Poe” theme song frames the evening. There is no other narration between the several selections from Poe’s work but the staging of the show – the lighting (designed by stage manager Andy Darr, I think, with deft spotlight operation by Matt Campbell), the music and sound effects (sound designed by Will McCarty), the blocking, the several levels of the set, etc. – makes the transitions smooth while allowing each story or poem to be appreciated on its own. Each is a gem!
The three main performers, Ben Asaykwee (Zoilus), Renae Stone (Morella), and Julie Lyn Barber (Bernice) all have strong, beautiful singing voices that carry emotion well individually and also blend well into pleasing harmonies. They all three have crystal clear diction, too, which is a pleasure at any time but essential for such a language-rich show as this.
They are also all three excellent actors. I found myself breathing “wow” more than once at the end of a particularly powerful selection. Other times I laughed with delight at their fearless, fully present interaction with the audience. Not only is there no fourth wall in this show, there is no fourth boundary of any kind.
The songs themselves are appealing, too. I can hardly wait until the “Songs from Cabaret Poe” CD is released at the end of this month.
My program does not say who designed the clever, multi-level set although it does give credit to Ben Lamey for scaffolding construction and to Ben Lamey, Robyn Lamey, Larry McCarty, Lisa Smith, Caleb Smith, Carrie Morgan, Maria Meschi, Will McCarty, and Ben Asaykwee for set construction. In any case, the set is like a haunted house pop-up book in that it provides all kinds of nooks and surprises to embellish the storytelling. I loved how the graceful, unsettling dancer, Shadow (Sara Lukaszewski), emerged from the set and eventually came to use all of it.
Shadow’s costume is part of her Gollum-like thrill while the others’ costumes are more stiff (excuse the expression) in their richness and wit. I loved the mortician’s bobby pins on the back of Zoilus’ head, for example, and the glimpses I caught of the women’s lacy-alive stockings under their long, somber, Victorian funeral dresses. (Costumes by Becky Head and Maureen Kirchenbauer, and by Landes Costumes by Rachel – Rachel Godollei Johnson & Daniel W. Pugh.)
The band sits at audience level off to one side. It includes conductor Roger W. Smith on piano, Maureen O’Leary on violin, Kaitlin O’Leary on cello, Daniel Sousa on drums, and Dave Hahn on bass. They all sounded good, but I especially loved the beautiful violin solo.
I think that Poe scholars would enjoy this show, but one of the surprises that made the pieces freshly interesting for me was the fact that some of the stories and poems that I had always assumed had male narrators are convincingly given female narrators in this show.
Audience and Appeal Factors
I love the skillful mix of humor, aesthetic pleasure, freshness, suspense, and anxiety that permeates this whole show. It is dark but not depressing. You leave feeling energized.
Part of me wishes there had been a list of the stories and poems in the show’s paper program, but another part of me is glad that there wasn’t so that no one was turning on their phones during the show to read what was next. If you are already a Poe fan, you will recognize and, I bet, be delighted by the freshly creepy presentations of your favorites, even if you are a Poe purist. If you aren’t already familiar with Poe, I bet this show will make you want to read this master of the macabre but in the meantime, you can easily enjoy the show on its own.
This show is for lovers of literature, lovers of musical theatre, and lovers of things that go bump in the night.
The show’s box office web page says that no one under age 10 will be admitted, and I agree that this sophisticated, language-rich show with its many dark themes is definitely not a show for little kids. However, it is sexy, funny, and dark in ways that are comfortable for all generations of adults to see together. I.e., it is not gratuitously gruesome or explicitly sexual.
“Cabaret Poe” runs mostly Friday and Saturday nights through October 31, with additional performances added later in the month. Check www.cabaretpoe.com for exact dates and times, and to buy tickets.
Note: Maria Meschi plays Morella instead of Renae Stone on October 21, 22, 27, 28. (Maria says her interpretation of the role is very different from Renae’s. I would like to see and hear it, too!)
‘See you at the theatres…
(The above promotional video for “Cabaret Poe” was produced by www.greenskymedia.com and is used on Indy Theatre Habit with permission from Ben Asaykwee.)
PS – A Word About the Coffins
The woman sitting next to me at “Cabaret Poe” asked me at intermission if I knew anything about the building we were in or anything about this theatre company. I told her the little I knew and asked her how she had happened to come to this show. She leaned close to me and whispered with glee, “A tiny coffin was delivered to my husband’s office.”
I whispered back with equal glee, “I got one, too!”
I enjoyed making a new friend at intermission as much as I had enjoyed receiving the tiny coffin, which included complimentary tickets to any performance of the show and a “blood”-spattered invitation to the pre-show lobby party on opening night. I had given the Q Artistry folks my home address but I was expecting a flat invitation through the U.S. mail. Instead, one night I came home and found something unusual tucked into the dove thingy by my front door:
Here is what was inside:
How cool is that!
I know now that I would have loved the show anyway, but the creative, hand-made invitation made it even more fun to anticipate. Thank you very much to whichever member(s) of the Q Artistry staff designed, assembled, and delivered it!