There is a great deal of madness — and a little bit of murder — under the canopy of leaves at the Pennsylvania Chautauqua in Mount Gretna this weekend.
Thursday was the premiere of a three-evening run of “Nevermore: The Fantastic Terrors of Edgar Allan Poe,” a Gretna Theatre production that eschews (with one exception) the Playhouse stage and instead makes artful use of the porches and walkways of Mount Gretna’s wooded community.
The immersive show, directed by Alanna Smith, continues with performances beginning at 7 and 8:30 p.m. tonight and Saturday.
The show is immersive by nature of its setting, as well as the conversational ways in which the cast shares stories of dread with their audience, often loosely gathered — standing or seated — in casual groups of onlookers. Patrons upon arrival are given a schedule — along with a chance to buy a pint or two of special brews offered by Mount Gretna Craft Brewery — and can choose when to go to each location to hear the presentations.
Each act is performed as a monologue, with cast members providing the narrative as they descend into separate planes of madness and hysteria.
The show features six actors, all of whom are local to the area. They are Bryanna Pye as Psyche, Brayden Krikke as Tristan, Will Stephan Connell as William, Jenny Piersol as Evangeline, Grace Atherholt as Annabel and Ian Wallace as Roderick, and each has a story to tell (except for Krikke, who has a poem to recite).
Thursday evening was clear and cool, but never uncomfortably so, when the show began. For me, the evening started at Prospero’s Tavern — in fact, the porch of a cottage neighboring the Playhouse — where Atherholt ran sobbing, in a crimson gown, white mask and red-rimmed eyes, and quickly drew patrons into her reminiscences of the folly and grief of Poe’s classic “The Masque of the Red Death.”
From there, I proceeded to the Historical Society, not far down Pennsylvania Avenue, where a bell tolled and Piersol, fiendish and dressed all in white, embroiled her audience in the frantic insanity of “The Black Cat.” Then back to the Playhouse, where Wallace entered strumming a guitar and softly describing his eccentricities before unfolding the fate of his sister and singing of family sorrows in “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
My next visit was to the brightly lit porch of the Gibble House, on the opposite side of the Playhouse, where Krikke recited “The Raven” with raw emotion. At the Porch & Pantry, Connell gave a rendition of “The Tell-Tale Heart” with delightful glee. And, finally, Pye introduced me to a story I’d never heard or read, Poe’s “A Predicament,” in which the narrator — with great enthusiasm and flamboyance, on the steps of the Hall of Philosophy — described her relentless decapitation at the hands of a giant clock.
The stories of Poe are admirably suited to the sparse, stripped-down performance style employed by the cast and crew of “Nevermore.” The show, as director Smith told LebTown recently, was adapted from several of Poe’s works by P.J. Griffith for its debut last year at Old Sturbridge Village, in southern Massachusetts.
The monologues, about 10 to 15 minutes each in duration, are presented with costumes (by Char Wilson) and very few props. Performers make cunning use of lights and shadows as they weave the stark and dreary tales, with madness glinting in their eyes and voices. Performers and patrons are in close proximity, so amplification isn’t needed — although one or two performers might have projected a little more to be heard by everyone in attendance.
It’s a short stroll between locations, so there’s no rush to get from one place to another. It’s tempting to linger and enjoy the night air, along with the ambient sounds of crickets and the occasional night bird, to chat with other patrons, to stop by the Craft Brewery tent for another Mount Gretna pint or to enjoy the acoustic music of Andrew Pauls, a Lancaster musician, who performs on the grounds throughout the production. And, since shows run until 10 p.m., there’s plenty of time to take a breather (or hit the restrooms, conveniently open at the Playhouse) between monologues.
The Jigger Shop, which was previously reported as being open during the production, unfortunately remained closed and will not reopen until next spring.
The weather appears to be cooperating for tonight’s and Saturday’s performances (although it wouldn’t be a bad idea to keep an eye on the forecast and carry an umbrella if an unexpected drizzle threatens).
“Nevermore” is a pretty unique experience for Mount Gretna, and I encourage fans of Poe’s writing and community theater to get a ticket while they last. Tickets appear to be selling out for some time slots, so grab them while you can — and maybe Gretna will decide to bring this show back for another run in the future.
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