Immersive play moves audiences through Edgar Allan Poe’s genius

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Immersive play moves audiences through Edgar Allan Poe’s genius
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By Jennifer Powell (Photo/John Nelson)

If you’re taking a trip to 1849 to delve into the increasingly unhinged world and mad genius of Edgar Allan Poe, the immersion process is expedited if you go armed with a glass of sangria in your hand. Such was the case Monday evening at the Torpedo Factory’s production of “A Dream Within a Dream: Madness.”

While enjoying drinks and conversation, it wasn’t long before the lights dimmed and the crowd of more than 100 people instinctively formed a standing semi circle around a hanging blue light. Ethereal costumed creatures made their descent down the staircase to an awakening of dance within the circle of light.

As the creatures arrive, actors infiltrate the crowd. By the time Poe’s infamous rival Rufus Griswold appears, with the confidence of a circus ringmaster, to give his resounding first person account of Edgar Allan Poe’s mental state, you find yourself being inspected by a constable, stared down by a raven cloaked beauty, or listening to the mad whisperings of a man stroking a cat within inches of your person. The immersion has begun.

The brilliant embodiment of Poe arrives — major props to this actor — to deliver his introduction via “Annabel Lee.” Poe projects his distress at his loss of love while being caressed by a lovely evil raven. Enraged by her response to his romantic pleas — “Nevermore” — his frame gives way to heavy resignation. You feel the air being sucked out of this man’s soul.

Soon after, with the dour mood still intact, the large crowd is broken into smaller groups with a guide in full character. Here is where the evening really gets interesting.

D.C.-based Through the Fourth Wall Productions accomplishes a sensory experience of the highest degree as audience members walk with cast members throughout three floors of the Torpedo Factory for nearly an hour and for at least six different reenactments of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories and poems.

Haunting piano music provides the one constant through seamless transitions between stories led by one twisted or tragic character after another, such as Poe’s wife Virginia, the murderer and victim of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the couple of “Eulalie,” and his younger sister Rosalie Poe.

The cast brings all these characters to life and works with the group dynamic by asking direct questions of the audience in every scene. You may choose to answer or not — either response is incorporated regardless.

The overall effect of careening through the Torpedo Factory at a brisk clip with your guide as they play their part while you hear bits of previous scenes as you walk does briefly give a person the real sensation of going mad.

Arriving upon a designated area or corner of the Torpedo Factory, full focus is restored as the new scene commences. These areas are made more private through lighting and set design, with a few seating options for anyone needing a rest.

Attendees might be inspired to first read Poe’s famous works or consult the Internet for insight into Poe’s astounding life beforehand. Both his mother and wife died young from tuberculosis.

He vacillated between wealth and poverty; success and scorn; love and hatred; reality and imagination; sanity and madness. But no research is required to enjoy this production, and you will walk away knowing much more about Poe’s life and work. You were right there in it.

Towards the show’s end, when everyone arrives back on the first floor, they are treated to a grand finale — a dream of a scene.

This high-quality dramatic production is to be applauded for its fresh concept of a roaming stage and its highly interactive involvement of the audience — on foot, with drinks in hand — participating directly in a trip through Edgar Allan Poe’s twisted psyche.

The fluid cast of more than 35 stellar and kinesthetic actors portrays characters that don’t ever crack. It is an immersive experience unlike anything you’ve ever tried.

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