Final rehearsals for a show
that includes both full nudity and aerial choreography can be stressful, but the artists behind Iron Crow's
The Homo Poe Show
, at the Baltimore Theatre Project through April 5, appeared simultaneously unflappable and deeply passionate as they put the final touches on an ambitious project meant to expose the queer side of Edgar Allan Poe. They're not claiming that Poe was gay but are trying to highlight the queerness of his voice. "His perspective was skewed," artistic director Steven Satta says. "His voice is singular and original. He created an entirely new literary genre, and he links to our central mission, which is to bring voices on the fringe to center stage." For Satta it was "an easy jump" to add the lens of sexual identity to Poe's obsessions with lost love.
Iron Crow not only found an inherent queerness in Poe's prose, but it found inspiration for the series of six short pieces based on his stories, including pieces "Super-Hot Raven," by Megan Gogerty; "Grieving and Sequins," by Satta; "The Trick," by Richard Espey; and aerial pieces by In-Flight Theater's Mara Neimanis.
When Satta invited Neimanis, an aerial artist and choreographer, to join the line-up of artists, she didn't hesitate. "Poe works in the air," she says. "Neil Simon does not." For her, Poe was the perfect inspiration. "His obsessions are full-on, which means we can fully embody them. Not a lot of plays have that."
Ryan Clark, who directs two of the evening's pieces, emphasizes the show's unconventional nature. "There are no little bows tied up at the end of each piece," he says. "Mara's opening, 'I dreamed of Poe,' gives me a very visceral response. It reminds me of death. It's so human, so real."
"It's a tricky piece," Neimanis concedes of her aerial solo. "There are no words, but it's an atmosphere, and I can act without words. There's a harness and a rope, and the rope's in my face sometimes, but the atmosphere invites me to go to Poe."
In addition to the flight harness, aerial apparatuses include a horizontal hoop and an 8-foot, sculpted-metal arrow that Neimanis uses to great effect in a later solo that conjures the horrors of "The Pit and the Pendulum" in ways that Vincent Price never imagined. "The apparatus is used as Poe uses language," she explains. "It means that actors create in three dimensions, that the movement of a revolve is both literal and metaphorical, as Poe is."
Neimanis also brought her aerial expertise to Satta's play, "Grieving and Sequins," inspired by "The Masque of the Red Death." "It was lovely to work with these actors," she says, "to play with improvisation, to watch them learn what it feels like to act off the ground. The script and flight grew together."
"I learned that there's a particular way to construct text to get it into the air," Satta adds. "For years I've said that poetic language is vertical. It opens up a state of being, as opposed to driving plot forward. We do that literally here."
"The question is, how do you stay open to gifts that are offered, rather than calling them mistakes," Neimanis says, of her work with the cast. "Dancers have the hardest time with that. They're used to being told what to do, to checking their movements in a mirror. I would choose an actor over a dancer any day. Actors work from the inside out. They are collaborative magic. They keep the script in their heart and make their decisions from there."
"Grieving and Sequins" marks the debut of Satta, a founding member of Iron Crow, as a playwright. Drawing on his recent studies with the Tectonic Theatre Project and its founder Moisés Kaufman, Satta gathered a group of trusted actors and started playing with ideas and text. "At first there was a lot of pure Poe," he says, "but then I started interpolating from other source material. As characters began to emerge, that material started feeling really clunky, so I started writing. All the reading and exploring in the room, all that material sifts down to a cellular level. It had to go through my body, through my cells, and find its way out. One day I looked at the script and realized, 'I've written every word of this.'"
Of Rich Espey's play "Trick," director Clark says, "It's a riff on 'The Cask of Amontillado.' A gay man, 35 or 40, has recently lost his lover, and is trying to survive in this Grindr-Scruff world that is gay society today. He's trying to find his lover's eyes in another man, these eyes that he's haunted by. At a certain point you sort of age out of that world, so this guy starts posting pictures from his past." Where Poe's original involves a villainous narrator who uses flattery to entrap his victim, in "Trick" the victim is Time itself, personified by an acerbic and impatient young woman. "We explore archetypes," Clark says, "but on a human level."
"Poe can live and breathe in the world of Grindr. He transcends," Neimanis says, her intense eyes sparkling even brighter than usual.
Satta agrees. "It's easy to dismiss him as just creepy, creepy, creepy," he says. "What speaks to the complexity of his work is that every artist has approached this project differently. Daniel Talbo's, 'Thomas,' is the most Poe-like in its form, like a short story. Megan Gogerty's 'Super Hot Raven' is about two women trapped in a bedroom that becomes a metaphor for being trapped in other ways. It's about what it means to let someone else into that world, and to break out of it."
Neimanis reserves particular praise for actor Alec Weinberg, who dances a moving pas de deux with choreographer Tony Byrd. "It's another opportunity to breathe different atmospheres in one evening," she says. "And I like Poe a lot more than before. I like the risks that he takes. I like that he's obsessed, that he's pushing the envelope. And he's very Baltimore."
Clark agrees, "He makes us feel the way we feel about this town, with all its problems-its really good, authentic problems that have to be faced."
"People here will give you the shirt off their back, and they're crazy, actually crazy," Satta chimes in. "You have to realize that John Waters' films are documentaries, and Poe was the John Waters of his day."
The Homo Poe Show is at the Baltimore Theater Project through april 5. For more information, please visit