It is a chaotic time for several of Baltimore’s small theater companies. Stillpointe Theatre, Rapid Lemon Productions, and Baltimore Shakespeare Factory all lost their performance spaces at the end of 2022. In a mad dash to find new homes, all three have found short-term refuge. BSF opens “Henry VIII” this month in a large church space, RLP will present their annual Variations Project at MICA in June, and Stillpointe has landed in a 19th century factory called Area 405. Shuttered since late 2021, the former arts hub has since fallen under the auspices of the Central Baltimore Partnership, who received a $150,000 grant last year to revitalize the building. While it is very much a work in progress, the Stillpointe team has made great use of the dark and gritty industrial vibe within.
Directed by Ryan Haase, “Nevermore” is an early 21st century musical by Grace Barnes and Matt Conner. In setting the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe to music, Conner sought to build a personal portrait of the man and his demons. The book by Barnes is an alcohol-fueled fever dream, where Poe is confronted by the women in his life. His mother, played by Kristen Zwobot, sneers derisively at him from beyond the grave. His cousin/child bride Virginia (Caitlin Weaver) succumbs first to Edgar’s pen, later to tuberculosis. Virginia’s disapproving mother, Muddy (Kay-Megan Washington), calls Poe out for his narcissism. Elmira (Christine Demuth), a childhood sweetheart who reunited with Poe before his death, tries her best to drag him out of darkness. A fifth woman, The Whore, is played by Rachel Blank, whose character is an amalgam of Poe’s physical and emotional escapes. She’s a skilled surrogate and probably the most clear-eyed character in the play. Blank eschews stereotype, giving her a sensitive lean that almost approaches empathy. Washington and Zwobot are both unrelenting in their matriarchal capacities. When Edgar whines for the umpteenth time “everyone leaves me,” Muddy states blankly “you want them to.” Weaver, as Virginia, is brilliant in showing the hard transformation from a naïve girl’s fascination with whatever it is that happens on “the wedding night” to a woman who must fend for herself in a useless marriage. Virginia, a widow, carries a different kind of naivety. Demuth’s performance is built on a rock-solid foundation of nostalgia and blindness (with very nice dialect work thrown in).
…Libby…delivers the goods…manages to dig deeper and deeper into the pit of an empty soul. He does all this while singing extremely well, as does the rest of the ensemble.
In the role of Poe, Bobby Libby is tortured, self-absorbed, uncaring, and seriously creepy. Baltimore audiences are thoroughly familiar with staged portrayals of the man. Quite a few good actors have made hay at Halloween over the years by pasting on the mustache and oozing spookiness for the public. Libby’s work in “Nevermore”’ is decidedly not that. The script is an ugly, scorching character study, and Libby delivers the goods. At times, he nearly forces sympathy from the audience. In moments, he makes Poe almost human. But moral bankruptcy inevitably reemerges as Libby manages to dig deeper and deeper into the pit of an empty soul. He does all this while singing extremely well, as does the rest of the ensemble.
The performance space is a narrow area flanked by lots of columns. Seating consists of three rows of folding chairs on each of the long two sides. Because of obstructed views caused by the columns, ticket prices are higher (“VIP”) for the front rows. Whatever the upcharge, it’s worth it. Patrons in the General Admission section (third row) miss quite a lot of action. A fine, nine-piece band is led by Music Director Ben Shaver. Sound balance between musicians and singers is best experienced on the side that’s opposite the band, seated as far to the right as possible. Haase’s set and lighting are evocative but static. One very clever lighting element is in the form of small flashlights attached to parasol handles. Kitt Crescenzo’s costumes are period-worthy and starkly monochromatic. Their black and white palette interplays with the unchanging blue and sepia lighting in the space to forge an otherworldly sense. Danielle Robinette provides the women with what looks like a metallic makeup base. It reads well in the generally dark space. Choreography is by Amanda Rife who also stage manages. Movement is playful at times, threatening at times, and includes a lot of wonderful little nuggets like the mirroring hand work between Demuth and Libby. Katie Hileman provides intimacy direction, and there’s quite a bit of tricky terrain to navigate safely here.
As was usually the case with Stillpointe’s productions in the past, “Nevermore” is accompanied by a gallery art show in the building’s large lobby space. “Hello, Birds” features watercolor paintings and brush pen drawings by Peter Dayton and Douglas Johnson. It’s worth arriving early to check out these lovely works.
Running time: One hour and 40 minutes without intermission.
Advisory: The production features drug/alcohol use, simulated sex including simulated sex with a minor (all actors are adults), and haze.
“Nevermore” runs through May 6, 2023 at Area 405, 405 East Oliver Street, Baltimore, MD 21202. Tickets are available online. The theater does not require proof of vaccination or the wearing of masks. Printed programs are not provided at the venue but can be accessed via QR code or downloaded here.