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Go mad with Edgar Allan Poe

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The year is 1849, it is a dark and stormy night and you are taking a tour of an insane asylum where Edgar Allan Poe is a resident. As you tour the asylum, you will try to unlock the madness that has befallen Poe after the death of his beloved wife, Virginia.

Through the 4th Wall (TT4W), a local immersive and interactive media production company, has created a world where Poe's characters - from well-known stories and poems to more obscure works - and the people he knew come to life in “A Dream Within A Dream: Madness.” 

On arrival, you are handed a numbered card, and asked to read the “Rules of the Maison de Sante,” which include: “Please do not touch the patients. The patients may touch you, should you be so fortunate” and “You may be separated from your group during your tour of the facility. Do not fear. You will be reunited. Most likely.” This sets the tone for a somewhat creepy evening.

As thunder roars, and music plays in the background, the actors start descending the center staircase from dark corners of the building and begin to mingle with the audience standing in the dimly lit first floor. Ravens dance around the room - pausing only to stare silently or look over your shoulder - and the host for the night, Madame Maillard (played superbly by Victoria Reinsel) arrives on the staircase and announces that visitors will be split up into assigned groups to tour the facility and “explore the mind of Edgar.” She advises that “the patients roam the grounds freely and if they ask you a question, feel free to answer.” She also cautions everyone to “believe nothing you hear, and only half that you see” - one of many “Easter eggs” alluding to or quoting Poe's works throughout the show.

Each performance includes 16 vignettes acted throughout the three floors of the building. You will only see eight completely, but may walk past or hear snippets of others as you follow your guides.

Doug Bradshaw, one of the show's creators, producers and writer said, “We originally worried about some sound bleeding from one vignette to another, but it ends up being just enough to cause some atmospheric noise, with occasional laughs and shrieks from actors and guests that give the illusion of being in an asylum.”

“A Dream within a Dream” was originally written for the 2014 Capital Fringe Festival and won “Best Site-specific Performance” in the audience award category. Jennifer Schwed, co-creator, director and producer, said the current production is a “whole new show, and much of the script and scenes are new and different from the last iteration.”

The Torpedo Factory Artists' Association commissioned this version of the play - the first project of its kind to be presented in the historic Old Town building. Several resident artists have provided original works of art to serve as backdrops and sets for the show, and many more have volunteered their time in other capacities.

The costumes are simple, yet effective in transporting you to another time and place, and the sets for each vignette often are minimal, perhaps a bench or chair placed at the end a long hallway lit only by a colored spotlight, a well-placed creepy doll or exotic lantern. The acting is so captivating that you don't miss a large stage with elaborate sets.

Poe (played by Ian Blackwell Rogers) and Virginia (played by Bette Cassatt) are remarkable in their depictions, and their resemblance to the couple separated by death, especially during “The Raven” and “A Dream within a Dream.”
“The Gold Bug” - one of the more light-hearted stories - features William Legrand (played by Greg Atkin). Atkin's over-the-top portrayal of a Southern gentleman gone mad with gold-fever is delightful.

Schwed said most of the scenes are “an interpretation of Poe's work and that is part of why we chose obscure works. We didn't want to make die-hard fans of Poe upset. You also don't have to be a fan of Poe to enjoy the show.”

The show is unique, and because you only see some of the vignettes, you can see it more than once. Also, since the audience is a big part of the production, each viewing will have a slightly different script based on how the actors and guests interact.

“If people think they know what is going on, they don't know what is going on,” says Bradshaw of what to expect. He describes the show as “a surreal roller coaster ride."

Watch out for:  Underlying themes of murder, implied incest, madness, suicide and mental anguish. Suggested age is 16 and older.

If you go
For tickets, go to  torpedofactory.org/poe .
Wear comfortable shoes and be prepared to stand and walk three floors of the Torpedo Factory for almost 90 minutes.

The show runs through Oct. 31.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016