In a life thoroughly marred by sickness, ill repute, and untimely deaths, Edgar Allan Poe did catch one lucky break. Though born in Boston and raised in Richmond, he had the good fortune to die in Baltimore, a city that has laid fierce claim to the tortured writer ever since.
Given the city's regular barrage of Poe-themed productions and events, usually most concentrated during the haunted month of October, Poe's life and work might appear to be well-trampled ground at this point. But last spring's immersive theater production "The Mesmeric Revelations! of Edgar Allan Poe" proved that there are many corridors of the poet's mind yet to explore.
The show transformed Enoch Pratt's West Monument Street mansion into a physical manifestation of Poe's fevered psyche, what the show calls "the mesmeric world." In this immersive performance, audiences are free to explore (most of) the Pratt House, presented as part gothic pageant, part haunted house, and part richly layered art installation.
Conceived by Glenn Ricci, who also co-produces with his wife Ursula Marcum and co-directs with Susan Stroupe and Michele Minnick, the show was created collaboratively by its original cast and crew and is hosted by the Maryland Historical Society (MdHS) at the historic Enoch Pratt House. The show's first, sold-out run ended last May, and the production returns this week with an additional cast and concludes after Halloween.
In June, the production team finished casting a full second ensemble. These new actors will tackle a show that the returning ensemble built from the ground up over an eight-month-long devising process.
"Now we know what we want," says Stroupe about the show's remount. But in the first months of devising the show, she recalls, "we didn't even know what the question was. We were just drawing these things out of the darkness."
The devising of "Mesmeric Revelations!" began after Ricci was awarded an inaugural Rubys Artist Project Grant from the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance (GBCA) in August 2014.
Ricci drew inspiration from established, more elaborate site-specific immersive theatre productions, such as British company Punchdrunk's "Sleep No More" in New York. But this kind of sustained, immersive, site-specific theater has otherwise been unknown in Baltimore, and such specifically American source material for immersive theater is equally rare.
In the months before the Pratt House was secured as a location, the cast worked out of Ricci and Marcum's home, developing their characters by first creating the show's intimate one-on-one exchanges between performers and single audience members. Minnick trained the ensemble using rasaboxes, a type of psychophysical exercise developed by NYU professor Richard Schechner that emphasizes key emotional states. Such exercises helped the actors give their abstract character sketches, drawn from research into Poe and his age, the breath of life.
"We didn't want to do a historical museum piece," says Jenna Rossman, who plays Eliza, a re-imagining of Poe's mother. "It was nice to have the freedom to develop the facets of the character we were personally most drawn to." Rossman, for instance, explored the real Eliza's career as a Shakespearean actor, during which young Edgar may have watched his mother "die" on stage as Ophelia, only to return to her son alive at the end of each performance. Eliza died of tuberculosis at age 24.
The same disease would later claim the life of Poe's wife Virginia, at the same young age. She and Poe's penultimate love, the poet and occultist Sarah Helen Whitman, are also part of the show's mesmeric world. But one character was excluded early in the devising process: Poe himself.
"That was a bold move that really changed the nature of the piece in a positive way," says cast member Alexander Scally, who plays Poe's influential detective character Auguste Dupin. The characters' search for Edgar as a means of explaining or escaping the mesmeric world, Scally says, became a crucial part of the show's minimal narrative. "And there can't be a search for Edgar if Edgar's already there."
From the exclusion of Poe emerged the creation of more opaque characters, such as V. (Tanner Medding), an amalgamation of the unreliable narrators often featured in Poe's stories, and the key-obsessed Barkeep (Jessica Ruth Baker), who shares psychological qualities with a number of Poe protagonists.
But no character proved more transformative for "Mesmeric Revelations!" than the Pratt House itself. Once this space became the show's home, both the show and the space took on new life.
Entrepreneur-philanthropist Enoch Pratt, who funded, founded, or reformed the various public institutions that still bear his name, may be the only Victorian American who casts as long a shadow on Baltimore's cultural landscape as Poe himself. Pratt's home, which he built just a few years before Poe's death, was purchased for the Maryland Historical Society (MdHS) in 1916. The Pratt House closed to the public in 2004 for lack of funds, and remained shuttered until it became the site of "Mesmeric Revelations" last February. MdHS received funding from PNC Bank to renovate the century-and-a-half-old mansion, modernizing plumbing and electric in preparation for its first visitors in more than a decade.
"Glenn is so brilliant, he could have done this show anywhere," says MdHS Marketing Director Laura Rodini, "but it wouldn't have been the same show."
While the Pratt House was the team's ideal location, adapting already-devised aspects of the show to the new space proved challenging.
"We spent a year just collecting things and creating these props," says Ricci. "Then we got into the Pratt House and it just sucked them all up." To enrich this larger environment, Marcum and her fellow visual artists had to create still more detailed artifacts. These details prove vital to the show's atmosphere. "Everything Ursula touches is magical," says Stroupe of Marcum's work.
Scenographer Kel Millionie began working with a team to transform the house's interior in January, just before the cast began regular rehearsals in the Pratt House. But he was "working with a moving target," says Ricci. "We were still coming up with stuff as the sets were being built." Ricci also created the show's musical score and sound design, which became essential for both the show's ambience and for providing the actors with cues. Show after show, Ricci saw the actors' motions go from stilted to second nature. "By the end of the run, it was fluid, muscle memory."
Ricci thought that he and his collaborators had put together a "very strange, obscure work that maybe 10 percent of the audience would be intrigued by." Instead, it sold out quickly and garnered international press coverage.
The fates of the Pratt House and of "Mesmeric Revelations!" are intimately linked for the foreseeable future. MdHS hopes to raise additional funds for the Pratt House's continued renovation in tandem with the second run of "Mesmeric Revelations!" and to open the house for other events.
"We hope it's just the beginning," says Rodini. "We're always interested in showcasing the historical society's spaces in interesting ways."
"Mesmeric Revelations! of Edgar Allan Poe" runs from Oct. 15 through Nov. 1 at the Pratt House, with sneak peeks on Oct. 9 and 10 and preview nights Oct. 13 and 14. For more information, visit myedgarallanpoe.com.