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Fraudulent Productions presents ‘2 x Poe’ at DCAC

(Published April 19, 1999)

By LARRY RODMAN

Arts Correspondent

Detective fiction originated with Edgar Allan Poe. More than anyone since, he unearthed the dark secrets of human psychology. The mystery tale rationalizes our actions and imposes a moral order on our circumstances and surroundings; as the empirical world becomes evermore complex, the urge to deal with underlying causes intensifies. Self-exploration requires us to excavate and reconstruct the past.

Yet, we don’t seem to give much thought to the civic symbols — stone edifices and cherry blossoms — which represent contrasting permanence and the transitory nature of life. The most psychically evocative monuments in the Mid-Atlantic region are at Westminster Hall in Baltimore, where Poe and his family were interred. An elaborate, ceremonial group marker is seen from the street, but Poe’s private resting place is on the grounds, at the rear. Contemporary writers — among the plot’s surreptitious visitors — have been known to lay their manuscripts on the grave to absorb its emanations.

John Spitzer, founder of Fraudulent Productions — "D.C.’s leading avant-experimental theatre ensemble," has obviously stalked Westminster’s 19th century bone-yard. Spitzer’s adaptation of the stories presented in FraudProd’s "2 x Poe" are true to the atmosphere of their source and very likely faithful to the original, archaic texts. Fortunately, when even obscure lingual imagery is combined with well-considered acting, its meaning comes through. A historically accurate portrait of Poe must include his philosophic, transcendental inquiries into the nature of human existence and creation itself.

In the manner of the artistic movements which they take as their inspiration — Dada and Surrealism in particular — FraudProd has published a manifesto: "(we) challenge the assumption that ‘entertainment’ is a passive activity. We believe that...the art of live performance (creates) an interchange of human energy that cannot be found in other media. We question the unquestionable, flap the unflappable, speak the unspeakable (in an effort to) diversify D.C. culture."

While artistic license may seem to be equated with anarchy, the Frauds clearly value technical discipline in their work. "2 x Poe’s’ first segment, "The Case of M. Valdemar" deals with a man (John Brady) who has consented to be mesmerized, for the sake of scientific experimentation, at the point of his death. In her conviction and with deft physical gestures, the physician (Rachel E. Reed) forcefully conveys the gravity of events. Valdemar’s last moments are stretched out like taffy. Under her influence, he’s able to send progressively more acute dispatches from the unknown as his consciousness atomizes and his ego loses its opacity. Valdemar’s prolonged transition between life and death makes the direct observation of metaphysical phenomena possible. Things end badly, of course, once the guinea pig is pumped too greedily for the forbidden information which mad doctors always covet so.

"The System of Dr. Tarr" is an amusing ensemble showcase in which several spookily well-cast actors break out and contribute to a mounting sense of hysteria. While the mad doctor figure in "Valdemar" resembled Bernard Shaw’s "new woman" gone ballistic, the head of an insane asylum, Doctor Mallard (Hugh Walthall in a great plummy, florid performance) is plain psycho. Inmates have overwhelmed their keepers and so take turns entertaining and terrorizing a hapless visitor attracted by news of an innovative treatment for the mentally ill. Apparently, the treatment had been too liberal. As the potential for violence escalates, an excitable pair of madwomen provide one of the production’s highlights, by enacting a barnyard foul duet/duel.

Poe’s gothic concepts remain undiminished in popularity since the mid-1800s; his cruelty and perversity have acquired a moderately comfortable distance through time but are still able to shock. To return to a theme: the past illuminates the present. Recently, for example, the Smithsonian Associates hosted a lecture by Tony Horwitz, author of "Confederates in the Attic," which examines diehard Civil War cultists; those for whom the war might just as well never have ended. While they are admittedly extreme cases, these people may be an indication of how much our behavior has been influenced by past events. Here we all are, in the last year of the 20th century, and in many ways unable to let go of the 19th. The ghosts of war, and Edgar Allan Poe’s tormented souls, carry on their quest to this day, seeking closure.

2 x Poe continues on April 22, 23 and 24 at 7:30 pm at DCAC, 2438 18th St. NW. Call (202) 462-7833 for reservations. Fraudulent Productions information is available at www.fraudulent.org.

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ORPHEUS RECORDS REOPENS: The venerable Georgetown full-service music shop, Orpheus Records – known for dealing in collectible vinyl albums — has been forced to shutter its M Street location after nearly 25 years. Having lost its lease, and seeking to expand display space, Orpheus has jumped the Potomac. The shop is now esconced in the Clarendon business district of Arlington, at 3173 Wilson Blvd., one block from the Orange Line’s Clarendon Metro station.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator