“Assassination” lets us find our own, human Poe

You surely know Edgar Allan Poe. And you know he died, a long time ago. You may have heard it had something to do with drugs, or alcohol.

You probably haven’t heard he was assassinated. But he was — and your feeling he may have been an addict is the hand of the assassin, still doing its work 170 years later.

The assassin was a fellow named Rufus Griswold, a failed poet, writer, and editor — who hated Poe for being brilliant in these very arts. So he offered to be Poe’s literary executor, the person in charge of all Poe’s writings after his death. And he wrote the first biography of Poe, the “authorized” version.

Griswold murdered a dead man, who could not defend himself.  He painted Poe as a half-mad drunkard, whose addictions wrecked his writing and career and finally killed him. And that’s the Poe most of us have heard of.

In The Assassination of Edgar Allan Poe, the artists of Downtown Rep help us to paint a different, far more complex picture. Using the historic Pico House hotel as their stage, they lead us on an immersive tour of Poe’s life, from his mother’s sudden death when he was three to his own death in a Baltimore hospital at forty.

Guiding the tour are Griswold, a Salieri-like narrator, and Dr.  Moran, the devoutly Christian medic who tended Poe’s last illness. They battle for the poet’s soul as they lead us from scene to scene of his turbulent, brief life. Moran urges Poe to claim responsibility for all that befalls him, disown his “wicked” art, and be saved. Griswold oozes sympathy and understanding for Poe as the hapless victim of a cruel fate.

Assassination‘s authors (presumably co-directors Ivan Rivas, Frieda de Lackner, and Devon Armstrong) thus face us with an insoluble dilemma. And their tale enables us, with Poe, to find a path between the false opposites toward a truth we can hold onto.

The path we find is up to us: At key moments, we must choose to follow either Griswold or Moran into the next scene. There are thus six different paths through Poe’s life, though they all begin and end at the same place (and each includes enactments of “The Cask of Amontillado” and “Annabel Lee”). But whichever path we follow, it’s impossible to end up believing either Griswold’s or Moran’s version.

As an author who’s worked for years on a biography of Poe, I can attest to the playwrights’skill in selecting the pieces from which we make our individual collages. As a producer and director, I am also impressed by their excellent use of the innately dramatic setting. (And laurels to the actors  who firmly override urban noise — sirens, airplanes, mariachis — to keep us in the story.)

Alison Korman costumes the large cast, many of whom play several parts, and flawlessly invokes the era. Stage manager Milan Levy and crew invisibly handle an almost impossible challenge.

Among the performers, Tiana Randall-Quant moves easily from Edgar’s adoptive mother to his teenage fiancee; and Christopher Karbo inhabits Edgar’s unwittingly harsh stepfather as well as his kindly mentor and publisher.  Rachel Levy, Arielle Uppaluri, and Dylan Diehl create a distinct trio of the literary ladies who filled Poe’s later life (with Diehl as a bracingly modern feminist).

Four actors give us Poe. PJ Diaz makes us believe both his diffidence and his precocity as a youth, while Alec Gaylord and Garrick Lewinter nicely distinguish his hopeful, energetic young adulthood from his wry, tired later years (especially after the loss of his cherished wife). And Armstrong shows us Poe’s fierce yet vulnerable soul, wrestling an angel and a devil to achieve his own view of his life and art.

At Poe’s side (and ours), Henry Kelly’s Moran is a chilling angel who slips all too easily from empathy into punitive preaching (the Puritan paranoia that infests American religion). Dan Lench, meanwhile, delivers an award-worthy star turn as the mercurial Griswold, using every trick of rhetoric and emotion to twist Poe’s story into his own — a false friend (to us as well as Poe) who speaks only of “truth.”

Finally, there is Chanel Castaneda. The script gives Virginia, the love of Poe’s life, little to say or do before the final scenes, but Castaneda does it so well that we utterly understand Poe’s devotion. Then the playwrights give her a tour de force monolog at the end; rising from her bier, Castaneda delivers it eloquently, carrying us away.

The Assassination of Edgar Allan Poe is an heroic assault upon a most difficult story; telling it as an immersive journey throughout the century-old hotel multiplies the challenge. The artists of Downtown Rep meet their challenge triumphantly, weaving a complex and satisfying design. This show deserves to  be extended (strenuous as that will no doubt be for the company), and to become a regular feature of Downtown Rep’s offerings.
The Assassination of Edgar Allan Poe, written and directed by Ivan Rivas, Frieda de Lackner, and Devon Armstrong.
Presented by Downtown Repertory Theater Company at the Pico House, 430 N. Main St., LA 90012.

Friday (Aug. 24th) and
Sunday (Aug. 26th),
at 7:15pm.

Tickets:  <www.downtownrep.com>