You might think you know Edgar Allan Poe, the Baltimore-bred mystery writer and critic who now has a National Football League franchise named after his most famous work (“The Raven”).
You might even shrug as you ask, “What new thing can a stage show teach me about this macabre, seemingly possessed man who, at 27, married his 13-year-old first cousin, Virginia Clemm?”
Please don’t let such sentiments stop you from experiencing “Red-Eye to Havre de Grace,” a revelatory Poe-centered piece that opened Thursday as the final show in Walker Art Center’s 2015 Out There series. This must-see mashup of opera, dance and experimental theater is a work of extraordinary theatrical invention.
Co-created by director and set designer Thaddeus Phillips, “Havre de Grace” centers on the last train ride Poe took while on a book tour along the East Coast. It’s also a trip shrouded in mystery as Poe turns up dead.
Using some poems and facts from Poe’s life, dramatic music by brothers David and Jeremy Wilhelm and haunting choreography by Sophie Bortolussi, the creators of “Red-Eye to Havre de Grace” have brought new light to a well-worn subject.
At the Walker, the action starts even before the curtains open. A clipboard-bearing man dressed as a park ranger welcomes us to the show, saying that he has traveled all the way from Philadelphia to be with us. Then the curtains pull back, and we’re in Poe’s chiaroscuro realm, dramatized by live music.
Ean Sheehy plays the poet with the cracked, somber mien of one who could be marching to the gallows. The actor has captured Poe’s severe, witless stare, one that we see as the poet checks into a hotel and rides the train.
Sheehy’s Poe is the straight man of sorts to all the others around him, including his wife, Virginia (Alessandra Larson). Larson dances the role of Virginia with poignant emotion. As she flits and turns up unexpectedly, her hand trembling like feathers, she often seems more like a spirit than a person — like a figment from a fever dream.
Drew Billiau’s lighting and the Wilhelms’ music also heighten the drama as we course through Poe’s shaded world.
But what really sets “Havre de Grace” apart is its imaginative use of just a few elements that keep expanding. The props are the most obvious. A door is converted into a platform, then into a room, then a closed-in hotel room attic. This invention helps to show how, with imagination, a few things can be transformed into a world.
That creativity, present in all realms of the show, makes “Havre de Grace” a gorgeously compelling stage work.