American High School Theater Festival, American Literature, Edgar Allan Poe, Education, Floyd Central High School, Ryan Bickett, Teenager, Tell-Tale Heart, The Raven, Virginia Clemm, Youth, Zach Hebert
American High School Theater Festival visit the Fringe every year, circling their wagons at Pollock Halls and appropriating the Pilrig church and the Morningside theatre for their diverse programme of Shakespeare, musicals, and occasionally something rather more fruity. The only people who attend these shows are the students from AHSTF’s other shows – they are probably forced to do so by contractual obligation – and it seems faintly nightmarish that these budding young actors have left America only to remain imprisoned within their own high-school culture, when there is so much that they could learn from a tour of the C Venues. Perhaps a determined young American occasionally escapes from the circus, and lives wild in Edinburgh, foraging from dustbins and sneaking into Samuel Beckett plays.
Whenever I have attended a AHSTF show, I have felt embarrassed and somewhat excluded and a little like a paedophile. But, speaking of paedophiles, tonight the thunder growls and the night is wild and Floyd Central High School, Indiana, are bringing the great dark master back from the dead.
For any historian and critic of American literature, the chance to see young American teenagers playing Poe is a privilege equivalent to that of the anthropologist who gets to watch his favourite tribe performing some rare, ancient folk dance. Poe is beyond literature – a figure with appreciably more resonance than our own Shakespeare or Dickens – for Poe resides at the heart of American ideas about genius and madness and death. Poe’s dark shadow falls across art, literature, film and television, and perhaps never has a single individual exerted so much shadowy influence over a nation’s culture.
“E.A. Poe… Into the Mind of Madness” begins at the Morningside theatre after ten, and it is grand to be sitting here in the dead of night, in this draughty old theatre, in the company of Poe and his groaning spectres. If Poe had famously insisted that the “death… of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world,” then this theatre is filled with beautiful dead women. The play begins with its chorus of female corpses wandering amongst the audience, as dry and as husky as cobwebs, but not, I am afraid, obviously poetic.
Zach Hebert is Poe to a hair, although admittedly his moustache makes him look a little like Hitler in his younger and more artistic days. Due to the calamities and hysteria which had consumed his life, I always imagined that Poe would somehow resemble Basil Fawlty in the flesh. We are treated to renditions of “The Raven,” “Tell-Tale Heart,” “Berenice,” “The Black Cat,” and “The Masque of the Red Death.” Inevitably, there is not time enough to cover everything, and “The House of Usher” and “The Pit and the Pendulum” end up being torn from the folio.
The play takes the form of a “This is Your Life” extravaganza, in which Poe meets old friends and looks back over his greatest hits. As one might expect, this is a narcissistic Emo Poe, with an undeniable appeal to teenagers. Episodes of suffering from his life are mixed up with the performances of his tales, so that it seems that Poe’s art readily reflected his kamph and all of the injustices which a cruel world had heaped upon him. Perhaps they should hint to these kids that Poe was an idealist who wanted to create something altogether greater than himself. There is a nice moment of irony when the young Poe (Ryan Bickett) is exiled in Scotland (but not as a participant in a high-school musical.) The marriage between Poe and his thirteen year old cousin is depicted tastefully, in that it is not depicted at all. The adult Poe and his wife never appear on stage together, sparing our hero any unnecessary embarrassment.
There is obviously a world of serious, adult theatre waiting out there, but if you want a wee nightcap to chill your blood on your way home from the Fringe, then this Indiana production is highly recommended.