‘A dream within a dream’: Catalyst’s Nevermore, in a 15th anniversary concert version

Scott Schpeley as Poe in Nevermore: The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe, Catalyst Theatre. Photo by Joan Marcus

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.”

Consider it a haunting (a subject on which Edgar Allan Poe is something of an authority). Nevermore: The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe, Catalyst’s much travelled musical play/fantasy/fairytale returns to celebrate its 15th anniversary in a concert version — with the original cast.

Weird and witty, and, yes, wrapped in the chilling mist of the Great Beyond, Catalyst’s original creation — book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Christenson; set, lighting and costumes by Bretta Gerecke — is a kind of theatrical hallucination. It imagines Poe’s doom-laden life as one of his own gothic phantasmagorical thrillers. As the number A Dream Within A Dream has it, “the terrors that troubled his sleepless nights/ crept increasingly into his days…. “

Nevermore, in a stripped down concert version that leans into the story and music, is here for three performances Friday and Saturday. Then the company leaves for a run of a full staged production at Vertigo Theatre in Calgary.

It’s a signature Catalyst piece — boldly stylized visuals and striking physicality, that marries music and text in an off-centre way. And it has a storied history. Co-commissioned by the Luminato Festival in Toronto and the Magnetic North Festival in Ottawa, it had a joint premiere in 2009 at the National Arts Centre and the Winter Garden in Toronto, after a preview run in Fort MacMurray and Catalyst’s former Strathcona black box (now the Gateway Theatre).

Nevermore is a traveller. It’s crossed the Atlantic to the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT) and Barbican International Theatre Events (BITE). It’s played the PuSh Festival in Vancouver and the High Performance Rodeo in Calgary, among other theatres across this country. Gerecke’s wildly fancily costumes — “a LOT of masking tape, paper maché, landscape fabric, flex glue, and sticks from the back of our old building” says managing director Lana Michelle Hughes — have been to New York twice, and recorded a cast album there, too.

During a four-performance run at the New Victory Theatre on 42nd St. it caught the eye of producers M. Kilburg Reedy and Jason Grossman, and moved Off-Broadway at New World Stages in 2015. The omens were with it: The New York Times reported at the time that ravens, absent from New York for more than a century, had returned.

In Catalyst’s collaborative fashion, the piece has remained in the repertoire and in development, with changes in music, text and design every time out. “And it’s changed again,” says Shannon Blanchet. “It’s never the same. That’s part of what makes the rehearsal process fun.” Garett Ross agrees. “Everything feels new; it’s never complacent.

Speaking as we are of haunting, most of the original cast have remained with the show. Ross and Blanchet have been in every run of Nevermore, from the beginning in Fort MacMurray in 2008. “Every day we rehearsed; every night a different show,” remembers Blanchet, who plays Elmira, Poe’s first love. “Very exciting!” The song Edgar Met Elmira is “one of the least changed numbers in the show.”

The characters have evolved in each iteration. Ross, who plays Jock Allan, Poe’s reluctant businessman stepfather, thinks the character has become fuller since his “Disney villain” days.

The last time they did the show was 2015 in New York. Eight years later, director Christensen presides over a veritable cast reunion. The appeal of the piece and the ensemble remains. “I’ve always loved the macabre, and the darkness of the piece,” says Ross. “And the people, we clicked really well,” he says of his cast-mates (who include Sheldon Elter, Beth Graham, Ryan Parker, Vanessa Sabourin, and Scott Shpeley).

Blanchet, a drama prof at the University of Saskatchewan these days, talks about “the joyful rigour of Nevermore, what it asks of everyone, including the stage manager, production team, design…. It requires a focus that is restorative. That, and the poetry of the language, the mystery of the story. A beautiful piece of alchemy.”

As Poe put it, “there is no exquisite beauty … without some strangeness in the proportion.”

Nevermore In Concert runs live Friday at 7:30 and Saturday at 2:30 and 7: 30 p.m. at the Betty Andrews Recital Hall (Allard Hall at MacEwan University). The Saturday evening performance is also live-streamed. Tickets: catalysttheatre.ca.

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