Nevermore combines music, poetic story telling and unique stagecraft to recount the life of iconic American writer Edgar Allan Poe. The show is written, composed and directed by Catalyst Theatre artistic director Jonathan Christenson, who was looking to adapt one of Poe's stories for the stage when he became fascinated by the artist's troubled life. Christenson saw Poe as a "literary rock star" of his day, a poet who wrote beautifully, but struggled with addiction and possible mental illness. "He was edgy; this young, super talented, famous guy and people were almost as intrigued by his self-destructive journey as they were with the work he created."
As he delved deeper into the details of Poe's tragic personal story, Christenson began to make connections between the artist's real life and his work. "I realized that his life read very much like one his stories, that the lines between what happened to him and the motifs that keep recurring throughout his work were very blurry," explains Christenson. "His imaginative life was so real for him that it almost became more real than what was happening to him a day-to-day basis." This inspired the overarching concept of the show, which invites audiences to enter the nightmarish but beautiful imagination of its title character. "Our goal, from the moment the play starts, is to really create a dream-like world, where the play has its own sort of logic, that strange sort of quality."
This hallucinatory feel is made possible through the production's haunting music and a gothic, Tim Burton-like aesthetic, which transport the audience into a fantasy realm and keeps them there for the full two hours. Nevermore's designer, Breta Gerecke, is largely responsible for this. Gerecke explains that because much of the story is based in Poe's own imagination, the potential for design felt limitless, "there aren't a lot of rules; the logic of dreams means there is no logic." Using Poe's poetry as a starting point, she drew inspiration from a lot of gothic art, woodcarvings and romantic-era black and white hand drawings.
The result on stage is costumes that blend 19th-century fashion details like corsets, lace, frills and fine hats. Gerecke experimented with raw materials like sticks and branches, landscape fabric, masking tape and paper to create the show's impressive bricolage of props and costumes. "It was pretty much a giant experiment that worked," she says of her impressive, large-scale creations. The cast is made up with white, ghoulish faces and mohawks, further enforcing the idea of a nightmare. "It's bringing a different kind of beauty onto the stage," says Gerecke. "The grotesque can be incredibly beautiful, and that is what we strive to achieve." Christenson echoes this, saying that the show walks the tightrope between many opposites, the grotesque and gorgeous, hope and despair, humor and tragedy.
This all works to give Nevermore a very modern feel, which is Christenson's objective. "We really wanted to make Poe feel like he was a rock star of today as well. Hence a lot of the music in the show, and the visual world of the show is really meant to slam 19th-century sensibilities up against the very contemporary – like goth and rock'n'roll aesthetic."
The story is told in song and verse, with Scott Shpeley in the lead role, which he has played since Nevermore's inception. Shpeley is supported by an ensemble cast of six who slip into multiple roles throughout, five of which are original cast members.
When asked if the show has changed much since its 2009 premiere, Christenson believes that the biggest change has been in developing and strengthening the title character's story. "The emotional journey that Poe goes on is much more present," he explains. "He's a character that will really speak to people. They will feel a real sense of compassion for this man who struggled hugely in his life, to find a place where he belongs, to find love and wrestling with his own demons around despair and yet trying to feel hope. I think we can all relate to that journey, and [it] is one that speaks to us all today."
Nevermore is now in previews at New World Stages with opening night set for Jan. 25. The production features choreography by Laura Krewski and sound design is by Wade Staples.
New World Stages is located at 340 West 50th Street. For tickets, priced $75-$95, visit Telecharge.com or call (212) 239-6200. A limited number of $30 rush tickets for each performance will be available for purchase by audience members under 30 years old two hours prior to each performance while supplies last.
Check out the Gothic-insipred costumes of Nevermore here.