One must assume that they didn’t have red-eyes in 1849 – don’t you need an airplane for that? – but the title isn’t the only anachronistic reference in the strange, compelling and utterly fresh Red-Eye to Havre de Grace, now playing at the New York Theater Workshop in the East Village through June 1.
Based on letters, poetry, lectures and other contemporary accounts written by or about the great 19th century American poet and thinker Edgar Allen Poe, Red-Eye to Havre de Grace is an impressionistic recreation of Poe’s last few days before he died in mysterious circumstances at 40 (the play seems to claim 39).
The play-with-music – hardly a musical in any tradition sense, and not even in most non-traditional senses – is almost as short on plot as it is on traditional songs. Instead, the music, like the story, is incidental and dream-like, centered musically (and plotted) around a train trip from Washington, D.C. to New York City that unfolds in surprising ways that lead us, circuitously, to his death.
Even the acting, mostly by Ean Sheehy as Poe, and singer, composer and co-creator Jeremy Wilhelm as a variety of characters, including the narrator, consistently toys with our expectations. Sheehy, as the dramatic, unstable Poe, is often understated, while Wilhelm goes broad, and yet, by the end of the 90-minute one act, they combine to make a powerful impression.
Dancer Alessandra L. Larson, in the non-speaking role of Poe’s deceased wife/muse/haunting spirit Virginia, brings more fluid movement into the show, adding a softness and otherworldliness to the rough, simple elements that comprise the staging.
The music, played or sung by the other three members of the four person ensemble, is less purely music than it is all-encompassing sound. While David Wilhelm, Jeremy’s brother and collaborator, pounds out a furious rhythm on the piano, the silent Larson strikes the piano strings at Wilhelm’s feet, creating an evocative cacophony that goes well beyond musical accompaniment.
Sound is crucial to the show’s power: The simple doors that serve as walls and tables and ceilings and trains – virtually the entire set – slam and fall, are climbed on and through, jumped from and pounded upon, creating nearly every sound in the show. Intimately woven into the highly percussive sound scape, they evoke the simpler time, yet are thoroughly modern in theatrical impact.
Beyond that, these simple elements – percussive blends of treated piano and ambient sounds, the knocking of fists on doors and walls, and the simple onstage light from dangling bulbs (which did not exist in Poe’s time) and brilliantly-used train porter’s signal light – combine to evoke both the simpler times as well as Poe’s dark visions.
Sound designer Robert Kaplowitz deserves ample credit for the sonic impact of the show, but the Wilhelm brothers certainly give him a lot to work with: Red-Eye to Havre de Grace has been developed – and likely continues to be developed – over the last 18 years by the brothers Wilhelm, with director Thaddeus Phillips also involved for all that time.
The result of those nearly two decades of work – the second decade of which saw more concerted efforts under the show’s current title – is a piece so organic, unique and of-a-piece that breaking it down into its constituent parts isn’t just difficult, it is pointless.
But as a whole, it works beautifully. Even though the music is more about sound effect than melody or accompaniment – and there are only a couple of moments that would be adequately described as “song” – the cumulative impact of all this sound and music, as well as deftly-used supertitles to provide context and clarity, is profound.
Even as Broadway enters the home stretch of Tony season uptown, celebrating a form that changes only around the edges, if at all, the uses of music in theater continue to evolve downtown. While I would hesitate to recommend Red-Eye to Havre de Grace to anyone seeking traditional musical theater, those who enjoy new ways of blending theater and music should make a point of seeking it out.