Imagine if the company of Sleep No More — the site-specific, immersive Macbeth takeoff still playing in NYC — got to speak and sing. That’s a close approximation of Red-Eye to Havre de Grace, New York Theatre Workshop’s enthralling song-and-modern dance-laden depiction of the final, agonizing days of horror scribe Edgar Allan Poe (now playing through June 1). Though it’s staged in a regular theater, Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental and Wilhelm Bros. & Co.’s production is one of the rare experiences in which you feel separated from your body, as the fluid, dreamlike tableaux of Red-Eye take residence in your mind and firmly stay put.
Set mostly in Philadelphia (where it was previously mounted), Red-Eye begins with a cheeky prologue by Ranger Steve (cocreator/master tenor Jeremy Wilhelm, whose brother David provides musical backup). The ranger provides full-service background on the events leading up to the demise of Poe, played with consummate physical grace by the rubber-bodied Ean Sheehy, complete with a Chaplinesque mustache to complement his wiry frame. (Sheehy also works for People, a sister magazine of Entertainment Weekly.) We learn of Poe’s past: He lost his teenage wife, Virginia, to TB; he’s utterly devoted to his mother-in-law, ‘Muddy’ (who also happened to be his aunt); and he embarks on a harrowing train ride before ending up in a Baltimore hospital, gasping and delirious, and then succumbs to a (still) mysterious death at age 38.
Abjuring the standard approach for bioplays, director Thaddeus Phillips creates a stagescape not unlike one of Mr. Poe’s celebrated stories. Virginia Poe (Alessandra L. Larson) becomes a wordless gypsy who literally floats (as in one jaw-dropping bit with an elevated bed) and slithers through the narrative in ghostly fashion, as our hapless Poe slowly crumbles before our eyes. Doors double as tables and vice versa, crawlspaces are created out of table legs, and a dancer finds new, elongated legs (I won’t spoil the secret behind that marvelous visual nugget).
Phillips’ expertly designed production also achieves a humane balance. Just when the material starts to lean toward the cerebral, the play’s generously allocated sense of humor kicks in. For a dance-heavy piece about a dying author, Red-Eye is as fleet as a Wes Anderson comedy and conveys many of that celebrated filmmaker’s same tropes. For instance, it is not above using a pop song to make a point. ”Neil Diamond pretty much says it all for me,” says the sly Ranger Steve. (He’s commenting on Diamond’s ”Done Too Soon,” which name-checks ”E.A. Poe.”)
At its best, this surreal and haunting play forces us to question the human experience in the modern age. ”Has all this speed made us more happy — or more wise — than we were 6,000 years ago?” Poe asks. We’re still figuring out the answer to that one, but the soulful, bravura Red-Eye to Havre de Grace will make you both happier and wiser. A