Knock, Knock....I'm home

Skip Maloney

  • North Carolina Columnist

There is a particular genius in adapting works of art from one form to another. From book to screen, book to stage, stage to screen and sometimes, from screen, down in scope, to the stage. Adaptations are big business. If you've read even this far, you can probably name two or three in the stage to screen category right off the top of your head. The screen to stage column boasts a few entries (Spider Man?). The novel to stage column has fewer, I suspect. The Bridges of Madison County, with its book-to-screen-to-stage route, comes immediately to mind. So does Stephen King's Carrie, although its Broadway run was short-lived. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, of course, which, to my mind, was a better play than film.

On October 14, at a dinner theater in Wilmington, NC called TheaterNOW, three stories by Edgar Allen Poe were adapted to a 3/4-round stage in a play entitled "Of Men and Monsters." The adaptation was written by a young man named Steve Raeburn, who took the central characters from two stories by Poe - The Cask of Amantillado and The Tell-Tale Heart - and brought them together as they were both 'on the run' from their heinous crimes. He sends them to the Maison De Sainte in Canada (in the original story, it was in France), where the third story - "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Feather" - unfolds.

Adaptations invariably fall victim to a variety of problems, related usually to a reduction or expansion in scale from the original source. I'm surprised that it took them as long as it did to scale a Harry Potter story 'down' to a stage, as they've done recently in London. It'll cross the ocean, soon no doubt, and it's a new story, though it's not precisely an adaptation. It was written directly for the stage.

So, there's that scale thing to think about. And language and atmosphere, and just the process of adaptation itself. In the case of Edgar Allen Poe, you're into language patterns that barely survived the 19th century and were gone, I'm guessing, completely by the second decade of the 20th century. Not only that, but the words of the original were written to be read, not spoken. Poe wasn't thinking dialogue on a stage, although maybe, born to traveling actors in Boston in 1809, he was.

I'd love to be able to write about this production with some objectivity, but being in the thing, I can't do that. Think of this as a postcard that says. . . Having a wonderful time! Wish you were here!

Raeburn's adaptation draws heavily on its source. A lot of the dialogue is word for word, about which there is good news and bad news. The bad news is that people don't talk like that anymore. I'm not convinced they ever did, although Poe seems to have been convinced. The good news is that they're well-written words. They have a touch of the poetic to them, and the words flow freely. Flowered language, decorating the horror of Poe's varied visions.

There's a learning curve involved with translating the language of the stories to the language of the stage and it's not just about the speaking component of the language itself. You have to proceed from the assumption that as odd as a particular set of words might seem coming out of your mouth, the character on stage that's speaking them has spoken this way all of his life. The people in Poe's stories sound like they've had a British education. Even the louts, some of them, have a way of speaking that reveals an education of some sort. And it's not so much revealed in what they say, but how they say it.

It comes as a bit of shock to those of us living in the Twitter-verse that people can use so many words to say something simple. "Yo, dude, 'sup?" becomes "Greetings, my good man, and what dark motive brings you out on an evening so rife with the stench of evil?"

As performers in this production, we seem to have found some creative space in which we've discovered, explored and brought the language of the three tales told by Poe to an audience. How successful we were at accomplishing this would depend, of course, on who you ask.

Pretty much every character in this adaptation and the original stories is bat-shit crazy. Tough to hang your acting hat on that as your only character trait. But I think we manage pretty well. Comes easy for me. 

You could run into problems sometimes, when, for example, someone on stage has no feel for Poe's language. Someone who  never quite catches the rhythm of it. Or someone who doesn't match up spoken language with body language to vitalize the character on stage. To the best of my ability to detect, the people I work with in this production are locked in that way.

Director Ron Hasson plays this relatively silent character called Boullard, who positively lurks on stage. All ratty clothes, scruffy beard, scraggly hair and terrifying little giggles and phrase repetitions, as he contemplates whether to eat you for lunch. He is continuing to surprise me with subtle little things he does to cement what's turning out to be a pretty significant, though no dialogue, relationship between us. We'll catch each other's eyes at different times, and I'll lay a hand out to calm him (Boullard) down. Or he'll look up at me, giggle and silently ask me if he can eat now.

I remember, early on, reading through a portion of the script near the end, during which all of the lunatics of the Maison De Sainte, myself included, are on stage. A stage direction indicates that one of the lunatics is to step up to someone chained, standing up against a wall, rip out his tongue and eat it. And then, as if that wasn't enough, other performers, wielding buckets are supposed to start painting the hapless prisoners (there are two) with tar. And then, sure enough, throw feathers at them (the so-called 'system' of Doctor Tarr and Professor Feather). This, in the midst of a cacophony of sound as we lunatics are screaming and cackling our heads off, while Boullard feasts on tongue. Just another crazy night at the Maison de Sainte.

They used a combination of congealed Twizzlers and stage blood to effect the tongue ripping and the first time I saw this, on stage, while I was in front of an audience, a part of me was saying, "Holy crap, this is insane." This, of course, was the effect that Poe was after, but here it was, with living flesh moving around on a stage, and (stage) blood actually pouring out of a character's mouth. It should be noted that the stage at this point is littered with body parts; legs, a disembodied head, a severed hand, all cast in this eerie, greenish glow.

The audience has been around for about two hours at this point, having enjoyed a delightful meal (part of the dinner theater package offered at TheaterNOW) and suddenly, things have gone from a little weird, on through vaguely threatening (with a lot of talk), to downright crazy in the play's final moments. We freeze our screaming and cackling. Our victims go quiet, too, and the lights blink out. We have yet to encounter an audience that didn't burst into enthusiastic applause at the end of that little visual treat.

I think it's a terrific adaptation of Poe's work. It isn't Poe's work, but it brings to the stage all the atmosphere, language and horror of the writing. As a performer, you don't really get to see what it looks like or sounds like from the seats, nor, for that matter, whether the performances themselves are as good as all us actor-types like to think they are. But that's not about the adaptation itself. That's on us and how well we do our jobs.

I think Poe would be tickled.

Photo: From L to R: Kristina Daniel, Jef Pollock, Kent Vest, Penelope Grover, & Ron Hasson (not pictured, David Heck, Phil Antonino, and Skip Maloney)