I had some ticket concerns a few hours prior to attending the Edgar Allan Poe festival. I decided I would call the theater ahead of time to sort out a will-call question. I googled the number of the St. John’s Lutheran Church and a man picked up. He kindly told me that I had the number for the church’s office and that he, a pastor, had absolutely no clue what the Edgar Allan Poe people did here at night. It was basically a mystery to him.
What a perfectly absurd circumstance, I thought, for an evening of macabre short stories by the dark artist whose words always stuck in my ears like … maggots or … something gross he might have liked.
At 7:50 pm, I was alone, walking into the entryway of the church, ticket-situation settled. Outside, from its multiple posters, I could tell that this was a socially and artistically inclusive church - it seemed as though they often host community events. I shook with joy gazing at the altar, where a shrine to Poe existed and a portrait of him glared at me down the center aisle. I literally instagrammed this photo of the theater as I walked in with the caption “may or may not be entering a cult.”’ A jaunty, ragtime tune played over the speakers, which I thought was a bit upbeat for what I knew was about to be an evening of freaky-deaky tales. I immediately wished my younger brother, who loves going all out for Halloween, had been right by my side. Instead, I found an empty seat next to an old woman and man who were holding hands.
We were forewarned about the lighting and smoke effects, and the tendency for the performances to get L O U D. These were “radio-plays”, so they were not staged but rather read aloud by two stationary actors. Despite the focus on the voice telling the story, the actors had to have lit up scripts to read from and thus I could still see them telling the story in front of the altar.
Sometimes during the telling of the four short stories, I would close my eyes and try to purely listen to the maniacal voices. I was never sure when I wanted to take in the actors, lights, and the fog machine, or just distill the experience to their sounds, and so the experience became a process of constant experimentation. Sometimes it happened quite naturally, like during the reading of “Berenice” when he discussed being obsessed with a little girl’s pearly white teeth I found the actor too sinister and had to close my eyes. On the other hand, during the reading of “The Pit and the Pendulum”, closing my eyes made me feel like the monologues were inside my head and I felt alone with “my thoughts” - that was terrifying.
I loved hearing these stories performed out loud because I found new hints of hilarity in them I had never heard before. At first, during "Berenice" when the old woman next to me cracked up - I genuinely wanted to lean over and say “do you realize this is a story about a man digging up the body of his younger cousin?” Pretty soon, however, the dry comedy of the “butler” character had me chuckling in the church pew. “The Cask of Amantillado”, a story of a man who tricks his rival and traps him to die in a catacomb, had me snickering the entire time. I really felt like I was in on an evil little game with the narrator, especially watching/hearing the silly slurs of his bumbling, loud rival. I soon identified the man playing the primary character, the mad man, in the first two stories with the spirit of Poe himself. I thought about what Poe might have thought of his depiction of madness, teeth bared and big-eyed madness.
Halfway through the stories, I began to feel pretty sick. Turns out church pews aren’t the most comfortable seating arrangement for your back, and small headaches and strobe lighting and desperate yelling seem to convert headaches to full-blown migraines. It is absolutely cruel to sit through a story about a man imprisoned in a pit with a swinging pendulum above him with a blade attached to the end of it when you don’t feel great. Why, you may ask? Because with every increase in the dramatic nature of the story being told, I began to reflect this growing anxiety and physical torture in my body. I slumped in my seat and tried to stretch, but the church pews were pretty crowded and so my movement was pretty limited. I hate feeling ill when I want to pay attention to a show!
At one point, I even imagined I was in church with radical storytellers and these tales were the stuff of our faith. So, I was genuinely surprised (and relieved) when they let us go at the end.