Nearly two centuries after horror writer Edgar Allan Poe died in Baltimore, his stories continue to haunt readers with the question “what if?”
Alex Zavistovich, founder and artistic director of The National Edgar Allan Poe Theatre, says Poe’s carefully crafted terror was ahead of its time.
“There were other horror authors that predated him, but none of them really touched the stuff that makes you want to check under the bed at night: the metaphysical, sort of sinister, beyond-this-world kind of things that are sort of the nightmares in your mind as well as the things you’re afraid of in society,” Zavistovich said.
Zavistovich added that Poe was also an early member of the mystery genre, with the writer’s stories preceding the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes books.
Starting next week, horror will come to life as The National Edgar Allan Poe Theatre performs its first-ever live stage show, featuring three of Poe’s stories.
“Edgar Allan Poe’s Blood, Sweat and Fears” opens Oct. 14 – 173 years and one week after the writer’s death – and will run for four consecutive weekends at FPX Events, located at 7938 Eastern Ave. in Dundalk. Performances will be held Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; and Sundays at 2 p.m.
Before rebranding as the National Edgar Allan Poe Theatre two and a half years ago, they were the Molotov Theatre Group for 12 years, which Zavistovich describes as having been “the preeminent horror theater, arguably, in the United States.”
When Zavistovich moved from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore, he wanted to continue in the horror genre but focus on the Baltimore’s adopted father of horror: Poe.
Born in Boston, Poe moved to several cities throughout his life, including Baltimore, where he wrote many of his horror stories. The writer’s grave site can be found at Westminster Hall and Burying Ground in downtown Baltimore.
During the pandemic, the National Edgar Allan Poe Theatre created more than 20 radio adaptations of Poe’s works, which were broadcast on National Public Radio and local public radio station WYPR, and streamed on sites like Audible, Amazon, and others.
“We were able to do a new show every month even when other theaters were still kind of grappling with how they could remain viable during COVID,” Zavistovich said.
Studios were closed at the onset of the pandemic, so the theater had to get creative to record their radio dramas.
One at a time, actors would go into Zavistovich’s bedroom closet at his Canton home to record their lines.
“We would have somebody in the closet with a microphone, and I’d have to listen through the door and yell their cue lines at them,” he said. “They would record it, and then when they were done I’d have to go in and record my pieces and then cut them all together. It was a challenge to do two years worth of video recordings that way.”
The members of the National Edgar Allan Poe Theatre are excited to perform in their first live stage show at FPX Events, Zavistovich said.
“Not only is it a really spectacular place to see a movie, but they put in a live theater space which is gorgeous and the seating is better than you’d find in most theaters,” he said.
The theater group will perform three of Poe’s works: “Berenice,” “A Predicament” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.”
Zavistovich said they are sandwiching a comedy between two horror stories, a structure popularized by the French theater Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol.
“The reason they did that was the first one kind of got people’s blood going a little bit, the second one got them a little bit disoriented – kind of like a palette cleanser – so that the last one hit home really hard,” he said.
Although Poe wrote in the early 1800s, his work still stands up today, Zavistovich said.
“When you hear about new technologies and things of that nature, you kind of get a feeling in the pit of your stomach like ‘It would take very little for this to go wrong,’” he said. “[Poe] would identify that and then write about it. He’s unusual in his ability to be current, to explore what scares people the most, and to innovate.”
In addition to the stage show Oct. 14-Nov. 6, Poe’s Magic Theatre at the Lord Baltimore Hotel will present “Tales of Mystery and Imagination (and MAGIC!)” at 8 p.m. Oct. 7, the 173rd anniversary of Poe’s death in 1849. Zavistovich will join Poe’s Magic Theatre hosts Vince Wilson and Bradley Barefoot.
And the International Edgar Allan Poe Festival & Awards will return to Baltimore on Oct. 8 and 9 at the Edgar Allan Poe House & Museum.