Red-Eye to Havre de Grace An Avant-Garde Musical Mystery! (Four Stars)

“Red-Eye to Havre de Grace” Directed and Stage Design by Thaddeus Phillips; Music by Wilhelm Bros. & Co. Created by Thaddeus Phillips, Jeremy Wilhelm, Geoff Sobelle, David Wilhelm, with Sophie Bortolussi and Ean Sheehy. Produced by Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental at The Emerson/Paramount Center Mainstage, 559 Washington St. Boston, MA. Performances through Feb. 16th


Do not let the term “Avant-Garde” scare you away from this wonderful work that defies easy description. Too often avant-garde seems to denote something disjointed and confused. It’s sometimes used as an excuse for lack of a firm grip on the creative process. Red-Eye to Havre de Grace is indeed Avant-Garde, but only in the best meaning of the phrase. It is “new” and “innovative” as opposed to “unconventional” or “experimental”, (as in an experiment that can either fail or succeed in the performing). This production is definitely not a failed experiment.

Every aspect of this “action-opera” as it is referred to, is well-thought out and complements rather than distracts from the overall presentation of the life and death of Edgar Allen Poe. While the play factually recounts the last days of Poe, it is as far from a dry historical recreation as can be.
Ean Sheehy brings outwardly normal life to Poe, presenting him in a very human way. He often plays him quietly, and as just a flawed and talented man, while around him swirls the thrumming music, dance and acrobatics that represent his inner, ever more fragile state of mind. In the end it makes for a very sympathetic portrayal.

Without uttering a word, Sophie Bortulussi delivers an exciting and amazing performance as Edgar’s child bride and cousin, Virginia Poe, whom he married when she was just thirteen years old. Bortulussi is also the choreographer and brings so much to this production with her smooth, sinuous and surprising dance/acrobatics. At the start of the play she is sensual and attractive in her interactions with Poe. By the end her movements are haunting, eerie and chaotic, reflecting Poe’s own horror over her death at an early age. The premise of the play being that the ever-present ghost/soul of his deceased bride is finally weighing too heavy on his mind, driving him insane and forcing him back to his weaknesses of opiates and alcohol.
Throughout the play Poe’s works are referenced to great effect, and the words projected above the stage. The Raven, a play which in its very popularity haunts him, contains the lines “Suddenly there came a tapping, / As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door”. The connection is clear, as Virginia’s incessantly haunting ghost comes to him over and over. Then there is his final much-ignored work “Eureka” in which he postulates that the soul of a person never dies, thus completing the picture of Poe’s haunting by his inner demons.

The opening of the play is funny and unexpected and goes a long way towards earning the play its avant-garde label. Jeremy Wilhelm appears throughout the play as a park ranger who works for the National Park Service, which in real life operates Poe’s Philadelphia house as a national historic site. Between his ranger outfit and his “unrehearsed” announcements from his clipboard he is so convincing that there was palpable confusion in the audience as to the authenticity of Wilhelm’s role. Of course this is dispelled rather quickly as he sings a song using his shoulder-mounted radio handset as a microphone. He is accompanied by his brother, David Wilhelm on piano. As a narrative device the character helps guide us through the final days of Poe’s life and at the same time, keeps the story grounded, which is necesary to counter the fantastic visualizations of madness that abound.

The set was sparse but I have never seen so few pieces used as effectively and in so many imaginitive ways. Doors double as tables, tables as train cars, and the various pieces are fitted together for the Martha Graham-trained Bortulussi to scramble over and balance on in ways both fascinating and transforming. Mr. Sheehy often and ably follows her along these twisting and captivating paths. It is theatre that demands to be watched closely and intently.

There are really no missteps in this wonderful production and I highly recommend visiting the beautifully restored Emerson/Paramount Center Mainstage to catch this show whenever you get the chance. For more info, go to: