January 26, 2015

Exquisitely stylish and excessively bleak, the new musical Nevermore: The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe, at New World Stages, takes the sad facts of Poe’s life and makes them gloomier still. Written and directed by Jonathan Christenson, artistic director of Catalyst Theater from Canada, it opens with Poe (Scott Shpeley) on a steamer bound for New York City just days before his death. His fellow shipmates are a troupe of traveling players, who politely offer to perform his biography, from his father’s abandonment to his mother’s tubercular death to his foster mother’s demise to his fiancée’s jilting — and that’s only the first act. “What a tragic life,” I heard a man say to his companion at intermission. “And it gets worse.” It does. As the lead player announces in the first song’s first lines, this is a tale “of mystery and horror/And of unrelenting woe.” Just when things seem to be going all right for young Edgar, someone coughs up blood, or someone else goes insane, and there he is, wretched again. The bare truth of Poe’s haphazard life and early death would seem sufficiently horrible. Mr. Christenson renders it that much worse. (Though, for decorum’s sake, even he leaves out a couple of the most unsavory details, like the age of Poe’s cousin Virginia, just 13 when he married her.) Into the historical record, he weaves origin stories for Poe’s tales and poems — most of the famous ones, as well as a few obscurities. So a ticking clock inspires “The Pit and the Pendulum,” a once beloved pet becomes the horror of “The Black Cat,” his foster mother’s dottiness calls forth “The Imp of the Perverse.” There’s plenty of puppetry, all of it terrifying.