Feeling Poe-ly 13 rooms. Live roaches. It's a fright, literally

Posted: September 30, 2009

TWO DOORS lead off Jackson Street into a large South Philly warehouse. One door leads the visitor to descend into the domain of the long-running Fright Factory attraction; through the other, one wanders into a maze of eerie rooms that at first glance wouldn't seem out of place downstairs.

"Bad things happen here; the biggest magic trick of the night happens in here."

Director Madi Distefano ticks off the litany of scares yet to come as she power walks through the still-under-construction labyrinth that will scare and entertain audiences as "Haunted Poe."

"Dark hall, spooky sounds, things on the wall, live cockroaches, scary things and surprises . . . "

Most of those are essentials to any haunted house (though even the most intense probably wouldn't want to muck about with live cockroaches - which, rest assured, will be safely ensconced behind glass), but here and there are aspects that the thrill-a-second crowd might find unfamiliar.

The Fright Factory boasts a "Mine Massacre," a haunted asylum and an R-rated vampire village. But an operetta in the graveyard? A Punch and Judy puppet show?

"Our show definitely relates to the haunted-house experience, but it's not as dark and moment-to-moment in-your-face," said Michael Alltop, Brat Productions' producing artistic director. "We're not operating from those same rules, where each time you walk around another dark corner, somebody's going to jump out at you. There's quite a variety of feelings that you'll experience as you go through."

Creepy and cerebral

"Haunted Poe" is equal parts interactive theater, literary adaptation, and old-fashioned spook show. Each of its 13 fright-filled rooms contains a short play culled from or inspired by the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, commemorating the 200th anniversary of the author's birth. "It's a haunted house, and a lot of fun, and scary," said writer and dramaturg Greg Giovanni, "but we're also trying to create a work of art."

That work began two years ago when Alltop, a longtime Poe fan who'd often thought of staging some sort of adaptation, read Edward Pettit's story in the City Paper arguing that Philadelphia should wrest Poe's legacy back from Baltimore, where the writer is buried. Alltop called Pettit and began devising a show.

The rest of the creative team fell together fairly quickly. Distefano, Brat's founder and now resident artist, was the obvious choice for director, given her experience in site-specific theater. Brad Helm, former technical director for Eastern State Penitentiary's annual "Terror Behind the Walls" attraction, was brought on as director.

To create illusions for the show, Brat hired magician Matt Holzclaw, who's currently working on a Broadway revival of "Finian's Rainbow" and has worked with Penn and Teller. The cast includes playwright Bruce Graham and Barrymore Award-winning actress Kim Carson.

In its 13-year history, Brat Productions has become known for staging unique theater in offbeat locales. Their first show set "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in an ivy-covered courtyard in Queen Village. They've offered Eugene Ionesco's absurdist masterpiece "The Bald Soprano" for 24 hours straight and a double-shot of Irish playwright Conor McPherson at Fergie's Pub.

At the first Philly Fringe Festival, Brat presented "Eye-95," a "punk rock white trash rockabilly musical with strippers, cheerleaders and free Frito pies."

But even with that wealth of experience, "Haunted Poe" has been an ambitious undertaking.

"The enormity of it has been very difficult," Distefano said. "It's basically 13 sets and none of them are proscenium. It's not in the round, it's surrounded by the round."

Perhaps the strangest aspect of the production has been those cockroaches. The Insectarium, the nation's largest insect museum, located in Northeast Philly, has contracted to breed up to 4,000 roaches for the show.

Creating "Haunted Poe" has thus been a strange blend of the creepy and the cerebral. Giovanni, whose interests are many and wildly, eccentrically diverse ("People call me in as an expert on so many crazy things"), finally got a chance to utilize his knowledge of gothic literary theory.

"Gothic is a type of presentation that's about 600 years old," Giovanni said. "Rather than dealing with ghosts or being kidnapped or imprisoned, Poe's prison is the mind - and he's writing before Freud. He has one foot in both centuries."

Giovanni joined the project after the structure and basic concepts of the rooms had already been established. He discovered that the procession of mediums used in the show loosely followed their chronological history - puppets, followed by the magic lantern, lecture, masked ball and, ultimately, film.

That gave the show a certain historical structure, albeit one that Giovanni fully expects to lurk in the shadows behind the scares.

"Madi and I have worked together for years," he said, "so I could give her this stuff and trust her to tart it up into Hauntville."

The real Poe

Though he eventually had to give up on his hope that every story included would be one written in Philly, Pettit brought an intimate knowledge of Poe and his era to the production. His chief contribution can be found in the "Poe Parlor," an evening-long installation at the beginning of the haunt that portrays Poe, his wife and mother-in-law during a typical - though ultimately tragic - evening at home.

"At least that Poe will be as historically accurate as possible in a piece where you're trying to entertain people," Pettit said. "I'm always interested in trying to dispel the myths about Poe that aren't true - that he was a drug addict, that he was crazy. But I recognize that iconic representation of Poe is fun to watch, so we need to have some of that madness in there as well."

Those two Poes are representative of the two audiences that Alltop hopes to attract, from Poe novices just out for a chilling Halloween romp to scholars in town for the Poe Studies Association's Third Annual Edgar Allan Poe Conference, which will be held Oct. 8-11 at the Hyatt Regency Philadelphia at Penn's Landing.

"The idea, from the beginning," Alltop said, "was not only to create something of artistic value using probably the most famous American author of all time, but to use a form of popular entertainment that potentially anyone would want to come see. Not only people who like adventurous theater, but people who couldn't care less about theater, who would never sit down in plush seats and watch a curtain go up."

"Brat's mission statement is to create new theatergoers," Distefano added, "whether that means young people or the general populace, bringing them in through the back door and showing them something they never knew was possible in contemporary theater.

"We're also taking arts patrons and theatergoers and giving them this down and dirty environmental experience that's unlike anything else they've done. I'm really interested to see how a theater patron takes something as opposed to South Philly teenagers who went to the Fright Factory and decided to come see this as well. Those are totally different audiences, and I think they'll be delighted and scared by different things."

Master of

the grotesque

Those frightened audience members will be exposed to the work of Edgar Allan Poe in the context of fringe theater, which is an added bonus to those involved.

"Poe, like theater, is sometimes shelved in intellectual academia, and I don't think that's where Poe belongs," Distefano said. "He's the master of horror, the gothic and the grotesque. Kids are into dark and exciting and fantastic things, like Harry Potter or the Fright Factory. Why shouldn't they be into Poe's literature?"

"Poe, more than almost any other romantic I can think of, is very understandable to the contemporary audience," Giovanni said. "Any tween who's interested in scary stories will sooner or later discover Poe and this really lush language and drippy, delicious ways to say things that just can't be found in 'Goosebumps.' "

But Ed Pettit, the man most interested in trumpeting Poe's legacy, has a very simple goal for "Haunted Poe," one he shares with Roger Corman, whose series of Poe films in the 1960s were somewhat less than faithful to their source material.

"In those old Roger Corman movies," Pettit said, "there are long stretches of narrative, and every now and then a skeleton falls out of the closet and everybody's supposed to be scared. I'm hoping this play will have that kind of feel to it."

Haunted Poe, 38 Jackson St., Oct. 1 through Nov. 1, $15-$25, 1-800-838-3006, www.hauntedpoe.com.

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