With Halloween just around the corner, it is the perfect time to enter the macabre world of Edgar Allan Poe. For the fifth year Write Out Loud will host PoeFest, a celebration of the author and all things strange and other worldly. This year the more immersive experience will take place at the Villa Montezuma Museum.
PoeFest bears the name of 19th century writer Edgar Allan Poe because it celebrates the macabre themes that he made perversely enthralling. Poe himself commented on his legacy when I asked him why his works remain so popular.
"Without any doubt — morbidity, curiosity. The curiosity of morbid young minds. For young minds are indeed curious about the darker aspects of the human soul," Poe said. "The darker, more violent, more volatile areas of sanity. In one of my stories, 'The Premature Burial,' I state the lines which divide life from death are shadowy and vague. Who is to say where one ends and the other begins? I also contend that the lines which divide the boundaries between sanity and insanity are also shadowy and vague. It has been the case throughout history that humans grow fascinated, curious about madness and mental fragility. That said, I offer this bit of caution to young readers: Be cautious. When you seek madness, you just may find it."
Okay. I did not actually speak to the dead author from beyond the grave, but actor Travis Rhett Wilson channeled the tortured soul for me as he's done at previous PoeFests.
Wilson became obsessed with Poe at an early age.
"My dad read 'The Raven' to me when I was nine," Wilson said. "I was just fascinated by the language. I didn't understand any of it, so I wanted to learn more, and I went in and learned what some of the words meant. Familiarized myself with a lot of his other works, familiarized myself with his short stories as well as more of his poems. I didn't really start digging into his backstory until college and I just read about him and I thought, 'wow, this guy was a very angry, hateful man toward the end. How did he get this way?' And I wanted to know more."
Wilson will be performing Poe's famous poem "The Raven" and then also doing "An Encounter with Edgar Allan Poe" where he appears as the author.
For the second year, PoeFest will be held at the Villa Montezuma Museum, which is supposedly "enchanted."
"Of course when I'm there as Poe, it'll be haunted because Poe's there," Wilson said. "Poe's ghost invades, infiltrates. But it's just a gorgeous Victorian style mansion. It's absolutely beautiful. And the rooms that I perform in have this lovely ambience of just a warm morbidity to them, if you will."
The move to the Villa Montezuma Museum last year also prompted Write Out Loud artistic director Veronica Murphy to change up the show.
"(For) the new version of PoeFest, we've created the experiences to be interactive rather than presentational," Murphy said. "So it's always sort of foremost, now, how can we find a piece that will be interactive that we can make a way for the audience to participate in what's going on? But so it's really the combination of an ability to interact for the audience in an interesting way and finding these various classic ways to bring literature to the community."
If you have been to PoeFest before, even if it was just last year, there will be new material to experience this year.
There will be two of Shakespeare's the Weird Sisters seeking their third coven member and asking the audience to help brew their potion. Plus you can meet Mary Shelley, the author of "Frankenstein."
Megan Carmitchel plays Shelley.
"I love Mary Shelley because she basically broke the mold as a young woman and kind of created this new genre of literature with 'Frankenstein,'" Carmitchel said. "This piece really touches on (how) she was really averse to interviews and to the press and to bringing herself forward in public because everybody asked her the same question, which was, 'You're a young woman, how did you think of this story? How did you think of this gross, gory, terrifying story of literally reanimating something that's dead to life?' And in this piece, we pull a lot from a forward that was written many years later when she was in her 30s (she wrote 'Frankenstein' at 18) and she has the air of, 'I have permission to say what I want to say right now because I have age and I have wisdom.' And she puts the public and the press a little bit in their place with her answer, 'Why shouldn't a young girl think of things like this? Who's to call this hideous?' And I just love her gumption because not only did she create this genre, but she had this fire that is so attractive to me."
Actors playing housekeepers will guide groups of 13 people at a time through the house and from one performance to another. So there will be three groups moving through the house at each show. It is immersive and intimate.
New program contains:
"The Weird Sisters"
"Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde"
"An Audience With Mary Shelley"
Reprise program contains:
"Literary Séance with Madame Philomena"
"Mephistopheles & Faustus"
"Dr. Frankenstein’s Laboratory"
"Encounter with Edgar Allan Poe"
"Remember, this is a Victorian home," Murphy said. "So you put 13 people in the kitchen, and you've got the bed where (the) monster is lying. You're all pretty close together, and you get to be involved in the reanimation itself is pretty remarkable. And the Weird Sisters, with all of their concoctions the audience is involved in all of that, putting things in the cauldron. And so it's a great setting for this kind of experience."
For each night of performances, PoeFest will run three shows — 6:00 p.m., 7:30 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. — and will alternate between the program and the reprise. Performances take place Oct. 14-15, 21-23 and 27-30 at the Villa Montezuma Museum at 1925 K Street.