Review: An Early Halloween at Radio Theatre NYC’s Edgar Allan Poe Festival

Thomas Burns Scully

  • OnStage New York Critic
  • Twitter: @ThomasDBS

NEW YORK NY - Edgar Allen Poe is widely regarded to be the mother of all grand-daddy’s of American horror. His stories are taught in schools, universities, and are universally held up as examples of good writing. As they have been handed down over the centuries they have been adapted into memorable movies and TV shows, but to my knowledge there has never been a theatrical adaptation that one could could say has entered the pop-culture lexicon. Last year’s oddball off-Broadway musical ‘Nevermore’ made a valiant attempt, and by many accounts was quite good, but it can’t be said to have left a lasting impression on New York or world theatre. So what, then, is the solution? Poe’s writing is undoubtedly good, you don’t need me to tell you that, but how to translate it adequately to the stage? Well, Radio Theatre NYC may have a solution: fifties radio-style staged readings of Poe’s work in front of an audience. Simple. Let Poe do all the talking, don’t futz with a ship that floats.

On the night I went, four of Poe’s short stories were being read. ‘Morella’, ‘The Tell Tale Heart’, ‘The Oval Portrait’ and ‘Manuscript Found in a Bottle’. For those unfamiliar, ‘Morella’ is the story of a man, his wife, and her obsession with the deviltry. ‘Tell Tale’ was the ‘Seven Nation Army’ of the night. Arguably Poe’s greatest hit, it’s the story of a servant’s obsession and the murder that haunts him. ‘Portrait’ sees two lost hikers discovering a cabin in which the painting of a women appears to tell a tragic story of obsession. Finally, ‘Manuscript’ follows a rational minded man who gets caught in a typhoon, and is forced to confront the limits of his comprehension. The evening was introduced with a biography of Poe, and each story was prefigured by a short monologue to provide context for its content.

As described above, the presentation was simple. Actors with microphones stood in front of podiums that contain their scripts. For added effect there was mood lighting, atmospheric music and a smoke machine. And that was it. It all worked as well as could be reasonably expected. The actors were engaging, and all in possession of rich, velvety voices. The sound design was such that their pronouncements were never drowned out by music and so clarity of speech was always maintained. The lighting and smoke punctuated key moments and was never overused. It’s a show that gives you exactly what it says it will. If you fancy sitting in a church and hearing some scary stories read to you, this is an excellent way to fill your fix. I will however, single out a few additional pros and cons that I feel are worth mentioning.

For a con, the church is hot. New York is descending in to Summer hell and St. John’s is not a chilling environment. It’s not boiling, but it is warm. Not a deal-breaker, but worth knowing. Pro, Frank Zilinyi’s voice is amazing. Good god the man can say words. His intonation is Wellsian, his delivery canderous. You can (and should) listen to this man for hours. Con, Cory Boughton shifts his weight from one foot to another a lot. This might seem nit-picky, and it is a little, but when there’s no other visual stimuli on stage, this becomes a point of focus. It’s rather distracting, at least for me. Particularly when you’re front-lit and casting a giant shadow on the wall behind you, that also moves when you do. Pro, the locale adds a great big something to the text. St. John’s Sanctuary, the church in which the show is performed adds an extra ladle of gothic on top of Poe’s already inherent gothic tone. I stand by my initial assessment of the show, if you want what this show is selling, then you will enjoy yourself, but the above factors both limit and enhance the experience contained therein.

I suppose there is only one major change I would like for this show. Put it on in October. The whole affair feels steeped in Halloween envy. The gothic location, Poe’s writing, the sound design… I felt like I was entering a house of horrors. And that’s a good thing. It was creepy and fun. But the Summer heat, the long day’s fighting off the night… it detracted from the atmosphere. This show belongs in the cool and eerie of Halloween. That said, I would still recommend it. If you like Poe, horror and good voice acting, this will tickle all your tickle bits. A few flaws, a few outstanding moments, mostly does what it says on the tin. And that’s pretty good.

The Edgar Allen Poe Festival runs from May 19th to June 11th. Shows start at 8pm and are performed in The Sanctuary at St. John’s Lutheran Church, 81 Christopher St. Tickets start at $20, $10 for Students/Seniors. For more information and full show schedule consult

This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded by TimeOut NY, the New York Times, BAFTA US, the Abbey Theatre Dublin and other smaller organizations too numerous to mention. His theatrical writing has been performed on three continents. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man. 

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