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Taking on tell-tale theatre

by The Concordian October 11, 2011
“The true genius shudders at incompleteness,” said Edgar Allan Poe, “and usually prefers silence to saying something which is not everything it should be.”
Spiritualist medium Lizzie Doten must have therefore been surprised when Poe paid her a ghostly social call, Shakespeare in tow, to transmit the 1860 sequel to his iconic poem “The Raven.” But perhaps Doten’s dubious authorial claims are merely the symptom of a larger diagnosis: our culture is haunted by Poe’s unforgettable narrative voice.
The fascination with speaking through Poe’s voice-box stretches across the arts—from Bart Simpson as a nasal Raven, to Poe on Mars in Bradbury’s sci-fi short, “The Exiles,” and most recently, to Montrealer Chris Nachaj’s new one-man show Obsession: Tales from Edgar Allan Poe.
Comprised of dramatized monologues from three of Poe’s horror shorts, “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” and “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Obsession allows the audience to experience the chilling atmosphere created by Poe’s protagonists, whose narration is often intense, dark, and mired with secrecy.
“This isn’t a reading of Poe, but a dramatization,” said director Christopher Moore of Obsession’s construction, “and you’ll witness the characters’ emotional and psychological breakdowns. We’re leaving Poe’s words as they are, because the stories hold their own, but we’re bringing them to life and giving the audience much more than just words.”
Adapted for the stage by Jim Burke, Obsession’s lightly-edited script seems to reflect Poe’s creepy reverie when he said “I wish I could write as mysterious as a cat.”
“I create a purpose for the character’s actions for myself, as an actor, and the audience can see that,” said Chris Nachaj of Poe’s protagonists’ often violent or viciously vengeful acts, “but they’ll never know what the ultimate reasoning behind the actions is, because Poe didn’t state it.”
“Take the man from ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’,” Nachaj continued enthusiastically. “He hates the eye, he really hates the eye, and it makes his blood run cold—but why does he go to the extremes that he does?”
Nachaj commented on the experience of working on a one-man production, suggesting a natural affinity between Poe’s narratives and the intense, personal experience of working with his material as solo theatre.
“It’s a different energy than working with someone else,” Nachaj said, “because you’re not working off of another person, but feeding off your own energy to get the story told.”
Produced at the co-op actor’s space The Freestanding Room, Obsession will take on small groups of about 40 theatre-goers at a time and present no traditional stage break between actor and audience, creating a viewing experience both warm and mysterious.
“The space becomes very small and intimate, so audience members almost have to become part of the show as well,” Nachaj explained, “and while that experience may not work in favour of different, more traditional forms of theatre, for our purposes, it’s perfect.”
Set and lighting design by John Abbott College theatre professor Peter Vatsis heighten and compliment Poe’s already evocative storytelling, crafting a physical space that facilitates Obsession’s dynamic programme.
“Although the physical space is small, the effects create the illusion of places within that space,” explains Moore of Obsession’s aesthetic components, explaining the unique appeal created by the play’s fresh yet accurate dramatization of some of literature’s most-beloved works.
Poe has joined the ranks of Shakespeare and Twain in the stereotypical scholastic reader: thrust upon unenthusiastic high-schoolers by overworked teachers, an innovative writer like Poe is easily perceived as staid and conventional. Obession does its part to revitalize Poe for the modern, sharp, curious audience.
“It’s a huge undertaking, because Poe’s works are so well-known,” Moore says, “but we’re taking them on — and we’re not intimidated by that.” 

Obsession will take place at The Freestanding Room, 4324 St-Laurent Blvd., starting Oct. 14 at 7 p.m. Student tickets are $12. For more information, go to www.freestandingroom.com.

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