Imagine an Edgar Allan Poe story with Poe himself as protagonist and you’ve got Nevermore, Matt Ritchey’s theatrical riff on The Fall of the House of Usher (with bits of The Pit And The Pendulum and The Tell Tale Heart thrown in for good measure), arriving at Theater Unleashed in time for Halloween in a production that could be better, but provides just enough laughs and thrills to make for ‘60s thriller movie-style fun.
Reminiscent of Roger Corman/Vincent Price horror classics like The Raven, The Premature Burial, The Tomb Of Ligeia, and of course the aforementioned The Pit And The Pendulum, Nevermore posits a writer’s-blocked Poe (Michael Lutheran) paying a visit to longtime chum Montressor (David Foy Bauer) at the family estate Monty has put up for sale with the help of lawyer Catherwood (Courtney Sara Bell), estate caretaker Dudley (David Caprita) lurking menacingly in the shadows.
Conspicuously absent from this family reunion is Monty’s sister Lenore (Elise Golgowski), either gallivanting about Europe (if the postcards that occasionally show up in Monty’s mailbox are to be believed) or buried in the wine cellar (if Dudley’s version of her whereabouts is the accurate one).
Not surprisingly (since this is a horror homage after all), Edgar decides to do some investigating down in the basement where he discovers …
For the answer to this and other questions (like how it is that Monty has written a story called The Pit And The Pendulum, and whether it is true as some have said that “Incest Is Best”), you’ll just have to check out Nevermore, worth seeing for its clever script (Poe aficionados will relish its referential bits) and effective performances.
Under Sean Fitzgerald’s direction, Lutheran channels a bit of tortured Tennessee Williams in his portrait of a man tormented, Bauer is suave sophistication personified as Monty, Caprita is appropriately sinister as Dudley, Golgowski makes for an elegant, mysterious Lenore (who may or may not be a ghost), and Bell gives us a Catherwood who’s somewhere on the spectrum and never less than delicious.
Where Nevermore falls short is in production values, understandable in a shoestring-budget production but nonetheless detrimental to a play that cries out for a more detailed, atmospheric set than scenic designer Gregory Crafts’.
More serious are the scene change requirements built into Ritchey’s play that ought to take place in seconds (space and budget permitting) but go on and on in Nevermore, and minus stagehands to move set pieces hither and thither, characters themselves must do the task, not so problematic in a contemporary comedy but requiring a suspension of disbelief here (even a deceased character keeps showing up to pick up a chair or move a fireplace) that proves detrimental to a play where atmosphere and suspense are everything.
Crafts’ lighting works best in cellar scenes (which are suitably spooky), but if ever an absolute blackout is required, it’s just after a character has been offed and ought not to have to rise from the dead in full view of the audience to make his or her exit.
Period costumes (by Bell and Mark Bell) and sound design (lots of thunder amidst mood-setting music) are both first-rate.
Matthew Martin is stage manager. Ann Hurd is scenic painter. Caprita is sound technician. Jim Martika and Crafts are alternates.
Despite its production drawbacks, I enjoyed Nevermore quite a bit, and if you like your horror with humor stirred in, you will too, particularly if you’re a fan of the mystery master known as Poe.
The Belfry Stage, Upstairs at the Crown, 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood, Through November 5. Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00. Reservations: 818 849-4039
October 6, 2106