Frazier History Museum’s Popular Poe Program Peers Into the Tell-Tale Heart

Beloved of weird kids and literary-minded adults alike, the popularity and influence of Edgar Allan Poe’s poems and stories show no signs of flagging, even 164 years after his (quite mysterious) death. The Frazier History Museum knows—the museum has been bringing Poe’s work to life during the Halloween season for four years now, adapting a total of 16 different stories and poems for the stage in intimate shows that tend to sell out early.

This year, alongside perennial favorites “The Raven” and “The Bells,” the three-person cast will reprise their adaptation of the creepy monologue “The Tell-Tale Heart” as well as tackle some new material. The short stories “MS Found in a Bottle” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” will join “Annabel Lee” and “Dreamland” to round out the program.

“I want to introduce something new each year,” says program specialist Tony Dingman, who captains the annual production. “I think it’s important to introduce the works of his that are lesser-known amongst that, so that when people leave they’re like, hm, I kind of want to read that.”

“The Tell-Tale Heart” is one of Poe’s best-known works, and Dingman uses it as an example of why Poe’s popularity is so enduring. It’s about giving voice to those unspeakable thoughts, which the narrator does so clearly. 

“That guy is crazy, but there are moments where I’m sure most everybody in their life has had this aggravated moment you don’t ever speak,” he says. “Poe is willing to take that, make it hyperbolic and build it up as something more.” 

Some of Poe’s works adapt easier to the stage than others. Dingman notes that monologues like “The Tell-Tale Heart,” which he will perform, translate easily to performance. Sometimes it’s a matter of just smoothing out the language. 

“In a story, he’s going to describe what a person looks like, how a person walks, and you just do it on stage,” says Dingman. “We cut anything that seems redundant if you’re going to be acting it.”

Others, like “The Fall of the House of Usher,” are more complicated.  It’s an ambitious choice. Even for Poe, the subject matter is dark  an incestuous relationship between siblings  and the story’s main visual metaphor is a house that’s literally cracking open. How to render that on a minimalist stage is a challenge, but Dingman wasn’t deterred. 

“When we did ‘Masque of the Red Death’ [last year] we had death literally come up from the audience, which was purposeful, in the sense that there’s no way you can push death away,” says Dingman. “So, we don’t want to build a realistic house. We can’t have a realistic house in that space. So how do you have something that’s representative of a house that’s basically ready to fall?” 

To figure it out, Dingman’s working with the same artistic team as years past, Kellie Moore and Eric Frantz, who will join him on stage. 

“We’ve been working on a chemistry,” says Dingman. “It’s easy – well, easier – to work with someone who’s done this kind of thing. Changing up the cast could mean good things, someone has a new perspective, but we kind of know our own language.” 

Appalachian music by the Tamerlane Trio (Mick Sullivan, Amber Estes Thieneman and Rob Collier) will once again help create a melancholy Victorian parlor mood for the production. (Poe had a strong affinity for that music,” says Dingman.) The music also serves as a palate-cleanser between stories, to help break up the gloom and doom a bit. 

“I don’t want people to think this is going to be one tone throughout the whole evening, that we’re going to get this Poe morbidity or melancholy all the way through,” says Dingman. 

“An Evening with Poe” opens tomorrow and runs through November 2. Seating is limited and some shows are already sold out, so advance tickets are recommended.

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