Intimate POE @ Theatre Above the Law

3 stars out of 4

It is a dark and stormy time--perfect to revisit the stories of America's nineteenth century literary master of the macabre: Edgar Allen Poe.  At the jewel box storefront McKaw Theatre that serves as home to Theatre Above the Law, playwright Christine Lepri has reimagined 4 of his most iconic tales into a chamber cabaret evening that beguiles and unsettles. POE postulates the theater as the Magic Moon, a bar frequented by an acting troupe led by Svengali-esque Michael P. Dalbey.  He awakens his snoring Lenore from her bar stool, the versatile, talented and very young Lena Valent, and presses her to start the stories, with the bar tender, custodian and patrons filling in.  The lights dim and we are in the House of Usher. David Hartley's Usher is doomed from word one, Julie Rowley's Madeline is luminous and the tale is resonant in an era when our objects have Artificial Intelligence. The house falls of course and we morph into the Mask of the Red Death which felt highly political at this moment: Ann-Claude Rakotoniaina sparkles as the narcissistic, spoiled ruler who cares more for herself than her people.  

The play struggles a bit with pacing, though director Tony Lawry evens it out with visuals and space use: Usher is long and langorous, whereas the third tale: the well worn classic Tell Tale Heart, feels like a Readers Digest condensed speed reading version.  The Ensemble work here is impressive and inspiring with all of the actors shape shifting into characters like chameleons. Special shout out to Ross Compton whose choice of music is genius. 

The finale, of course, is Lenore and the Raven's tale: Nevermore, and Lenore resists: the story for her is old and tired and she wants MORE-- she rejects and overtakes her mentor in the end. 

Chicago has a magnificent storefront tradition and Theatre Above the Law gives audiences a chance to revel in great acting up very close.  The 75 minute intermissionless experience is just the kind of theatre we need in this depressing time of year.  This piece is also a delightful visitation to important works of American Literature for the youngsters: bring the whole family to POE.

POE is playing Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through November 11th (with a special Oct 31 Halloween show) at the McKaw Theatre, 1439 Jarvis in Rogers Park. For tickets and info go to http://www.theatreatl.org