Simon Moody portrays the mysterious Captain Nimrod, Ethan Washburn appears as Edgar Allan Poe and Michael King as his friend, Reynolds, while cabin boys played by Ian Doherty and Herbert “Tone” Merrick look on in the CNY Playhouse production of “Nevermore,” running through Nov. 17, at ShoppingTown Mall. (Amelia Beamish photo)
“All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.” So wrote the 19th century American poet Edgar Allan Poe, the author who invented the mystery genre and entertained readers with inventive tales of terror. One of those appreciative readers is Christopher Lupia, who directs “Nevermore,” a two-hour “dream within a dream” running through Nov. 17, at CNY Playhouse, at Shoppingtown DeWitt.
“Nevermore” is a free-wheeling fantasy by South Carolina playwright Julian Wiles, author of more than 30 plays and the founder of Charleston Stage. Wiles imagines that Poe’s dying delirium takes place aboard a ship boarding at Baltimore harbor at midnight bound for New York. As the journey progresses, allusions to Poe’s works, both familiar and obscure, pour forth: “The Cask of Amontillado,” “Hop-Frog,” “The Gold Bug,” “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Pit & The Pendulum.” Other stories are more fully acted out, including a gruesome “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and climactically “The Premature Burial.”
Lupia – who is also a talented actor and set designer – has assembled a capable cast of 22 to enact Wiles’ depiction of Poe’s booze-fueled nightmares in which characters from his own horror stories rise from the page to haunt him. While the cast turns in credible performances – especially mustachioed Ethan Washburn as Poe, Michael King as Poe’s pal, Reynolds, Simon Moody as the sinister Captain Nimrod and the lovely Lisanne Petracca as the ill-fated Annabel Lee – the real star of “Nevermore” is Lupia’s foreboding shipboard set. The two-tiered deck has an authentic ship’s wheel at upper stage right, wooden crates and barrels and a ladder at stage left and white masts above all rigged together with more than a dozen thick ropes that dance to the ocean squalls like a cat o’ nine tails.
Although Wiles’ play – its premise, its plot and its intentional blurring of reality – fails to sail smoothly, Lupia’s set overwhelms all as it paints an appropriately dark picture. And the way Lupia choreographs the action, manipulating the lights, the sound and the ever-present fog, often amazes and sometimes shocks the audience.
Authentic Victorian costumes embellished the gothic ambiance with grand gowns for the ladies and cravats for the men. The outfits were coordinated by Korrie Taylor aided by Diane Bates and Simon Moody, who – as Nimrod – carried a fancy cane topped with a gold raven.
Lupia and Rob Searle teamed up to devise a spectacular sound design of ear-piercing noises ranging from a thumping heart to thunderous skies, a raven’s caw and the tintinnabulation of bells. And lighting designer Sarah Anson fulfilled countless cues suggesting lightning flashes, hanging lanterns and graveyard shadows.
An Act 1 courtship dance sequence and an Act 2 masked ball were all staged well in front of the ship, and the flowing choreography by Lauren Puente provided brief respite from the chaos unfolding aboard Nimrod’s vessel.
As for the actors, Ethan Washburn made for an unusually meaty Poe, a dipsomaniac who was actually rather gaunt and haggard. When Poe died at age 40 he looked far older, and Washburn’s still undeniably youthful. An up-and-coming leading man, Washburn took this role seriously, and it shows. He may have rushed through an abridged recitation of “The Raven,” but he took his time to become emotional in scenes with Petracca as Annabel Lee.
Other cast standouts are David Dean in several roles including Roderick Usher, Michaela Oney as Poe’s put-upon landlady, and Isaac Betters, David Simmons and Ian Doherty in minor roles.
Wiles’ somewhat scatter-shot approach often leaves the audience wondering what’s actually transpiring. What is real and what is imagined? In his director’s note, however, Lupia indicated that’s exactly what he intends.
“Nevermore,” produced by Keith Arlington, runs at 8 p.m., Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Nov. 15, 16 and 17, at CNY Playhouse, located near the Macy’s entrance at on the second level of ShoppingTown Mall. Tickets cost $17 on Thursday and Sunday, and $20 on Friday and Saturday; cnyplayhouse.org; 315-885-8960.
Jason Emerson is editor of the Cazenovia Republican and Eagle Bulletin newspapers.