In 1842, Edgar Allan Poe offered his famous prescription that all elements of a short story should work together to achieve a single emotional effect. “If his very initial sentence tend not to the out-bringing of this effect,” Poe said of a hypothetical scribbler, “then he has failed in his first step.”
What, then, to make of the overture to POEtry, the new collaboration between Lou Reed and Robert Wilson at BAM? “These are the stories of Edgar Allan Poe,” the cast begins. “He ain’t exactly the boy next door.” If it’s possible to damn by faint damnation, this does. After that, it’s virtually impossible to understand the song’s lyrics, thanks mainly to the all-German cast’s inability to make their imprecise English heard over the blaring guitars, drums, and keyboards of the five-piece pit band. But a quick perusal of the libretto shows that this is a lousy-food-small-portions issue, anyway. “He’ll tell you tales of horror/Then he’ll play with your mind,” continues the sub-Schoolhouse Rock exegesis. “If you haven’t heard of him/You must be deaf or blind.” If Reed is aiming for an effect that combines ponderous, literal-minded pedantry and Rent-grade, gratuitously amplified theater-rock, he’s off to a galloping start.
Fortunately, the show’s palette broadens considerably as it proceeds through 10 of Poe’s short stories and poems, interpretations that vary widely in scrutability, faithfulness to the original, and entertainment value. And though the opening number is far from the show’s only cringe inducer, POEtry also contains passages in which Wilson’s macabre minimalism and Reed’s verbal adaptation create a state of breathless, charged suspense worthy of the Poe originals. A half-dozen glittering lanterns give the audience a disorienting, victim’s-eye view of the murder in “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Even better, Reed’s two songs accompanying the story, “Blind Rage” and “Walking on Embers,” give voice to both the dead man and to the detectives investigating the murder. Reed and Wilson’s version of “The Cask of Amontillado” and “Hop-Frog” convey an appropriately dizzying lust for revenge.
The show fares best when Reed takes on obsessions he shares with Poe: perversion, pettiness, vengefulness. But just as Reed and Wilson’s previous theatrical excursion into fantastical literature, the H.G. Wells-inspired Time Rocker, suffered from a lack of coherence, POEtry is disjointed. You can forgive a little jumpiness in a show based on 10 separate works, but many of the stories have narratives that barely track. Though Reed wrote the book as well as the lyrics for POEtry, he occasionally has a hard time establishing any coherent link between musical interludes and dialogue. The soothing ballad that closes “The Imp of the Perverse” is pleasant enough, though how the lines “It must be nice to disappear/To have a vanishing act” relate to the surreal classroom lesson that precedes them is anyone’s guess. Then again, the link between said lesson and Poe’s short story about impulsive evil is equally mysterious. If the idea is that the pupil, a beanie-clad brat who ejaculates non sequiturs like “Semen!” is a perverse imp, well, this piece is right up there with the show’s opener for wit and subtlety.
The best of Reed’s songs echo multiple aspects of his own history, as when the muse Lenore (sporting a Bride of Frankenstein beehive) prefaces Reed’s updated “Raven” with “Perfect Day” from Transformer, in a dirgey voice wholly reminiscent of Nico’s matte delivery on “Femme Fatale” or “I’ll Be Your Mirror.” In a possible nod to the Reed-inspired Hedwig and the Angry Inch, two new songs, “Who Am I” and “Change,” add glam-rock explorations of identity to the poems “The Valley of Unrest” and “The City in the Sea.”
Still, you can’t help feeling as though Reed identifies a little too strongly with some of Poe’s most self-pitying characters. Just as he clearly sees himself in the author who “ain’t exactly the boy next door,” he give the name Edgar to the narrator of “The Cask of Amontillado.” This would make the murderous, ego-bruised character a proxy for Reed. Now that’s a tell-tale heart.