Murder & Guilt Reign in Elite Theatre Company’s “Dark Heart of Poe”

REVIEW BY CARY GINELL

What could be more appropriate fare for a dark and chilly Halloween night than an evening of Edgar Allan Poe? The Elite Theatre Company has put together an encore of last year’s “Dark Heart of Poe” tableau featuring two stunningly effective performers, Austin Miller and Travis Winterstein. The show dramatizes four Poe classics: the poems “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee” and the short stories “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Masque of the Red Death.” (The latter story replaces last year’s “The Cask of Amontillado” in the show.) Both of the poems center on a favorite subject of Poe’s: the death of a beautiful woman. In “The Raven,” the narrator, played by Winterstein, is driven mad when a large, black raven flies into his chamber, but is only able to utter the word “nevermore.” Winterstein’s questioning of the bird only intensifies his already fragile and morose state and he becomes more and more distraught, until by the end of the poem, he is overcome with anguish.

Guilt is a driving force in many of Poe’s works, but never so much so as in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” a frightening story of a man whose obsession with an old man’s cataract-infected eye leads him to murder the man in cold blood, dismember his body, and bury it beneath the floorboards of his house. Then he sits calmly in a chair, directly over where the body is buried, while investigators chat with him casually about the man’s disappearance. Miller’s telling of this story is masterful, his spoken cadences deliberate where they need to be, and with increasing intensity as his guilt results in hallucinations of the dead man’s heart beating louder and louder until it forces him to confess his crime.

In “The Masque of the Red Death,” Miller is the anthropomorphic representation of a deadly plague, garbed in a red cape and mask. Winterstein is the regal Prince Prospero, who has sequestered himself in his grand abbey as he hosts a lavish masquerade ball for guests, refusing to acknowledge the epidemic. In the end, Miller enters and strides through the seven different colored rooms of the house, as all the party-goers, and the prince, fall dead at his feet. A T-shaped stage at the Elite Theatre Company was utilized to facilitate Miller’s progression from one room to the next, and was quite effective, as were the sound effects of a rainstorm and the incessantly beating heart in “The Tell-Tale Heart.”

The eighteen-year-old Miller is an exceptionally talented and versatile performer, with a riveting, charismatic presence on the stage. Previously starring as Julian Marsh in Young Artists Ensemble’s “42nd Street,” Miller, who recently graduated from Santa Susana High School in Simi Valley, is tall and lanky, with an uncanny resemblance in visage and voice to legendary actor Frank Langella. Winterstein, twenty-seven, studied drama at Ventura College and is also looking to a career on the stage. Both provided compelling and convincing performances to the show.

To bridge the poems and stories, director Andrew James included original letters written by Poe, which are read aloud by Winterstein as he is writing them down. In these sequences, Winterstein represents Poe the man while Miller is the dark side of Poe, the artist, who influences Winterstein to write his macabre works. The letters date from chronologically progressing periods in Poe’s brief life, beginning when he was a young writer of 20 and concluding when a mysterious illness (possibly cholera) resulted in his death in 1849 at the age of 40.

Both Miller and Winterstein are very enthusiastic about this show, so much so, that when I arrived at the theater too late for the curtain, they willingly offered me a “command performance,” going through the whole show again just for me, so I wouldn’t miss it. I want to thank both Miller and Winterstein as well as director Andrew James and producer Allison Williams for allowing me this unique privilege. It was worth the wait.

“Dark Heart of Poe” plays through November 24 at the Elite Theatre Company in Oxnard. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.

 

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