Deep into Darkness, The Cultch, Aug. 13-25, 8 p.m. (thecultch.com).
As if reality had decided to mimic the macabre fiction he’d spent his whole life delicately and darkly composing, Edgar Allan Poe’s death remains something of a mystery.
Poe, the creator of such forebodingly ominous yarns as “The Raven” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” and who in the process practically invented the genre of gothic literature, died at the age of 40. Death by rabies, epilepsy, poisoning, alcoholism or “congestion of the brain” are just some of the speculations posited by critics as to why one of the progenitors of the American short story died such a premature death on Oct. 7, 1849 in Baltimore – as he supposedly crept towards Philadelphia, destitute and poor. Allegedly, his last words were: “Lord, help my poor soul.”
A new 15-character, 150-minute original production, Deep Into Darkness, showing Aug. 13-25 at the Cultch theatre in Vancouver, is inspired by those fateful and mysterious final moments of Poe’s life.
The show was conceptualized by Laura Carly Miller and Sydney Doberstein, co-founders of Third Wheel Productions and graduates of Capilano University’s acting for stage and screen program.
Deep Into Darkness is set during the last few hours of the fever dream that Poe experienced before he died and explores themes of loss, death, madness and love, according to Miller.
“Edgar Allan Poe’s death was a mystery and it still is to this day. We are giving the audience an opportunity and challenging them to figure out how he died,” says Miller.
While the pair’s reluctant to get into specifics concerning plot and storyline, they do offer breadcrumbs by stating they were particularly inspired by Poe short stories like “The Tell-Tale Heart” and poems “Annabel Lee” and “A Dream Within a Dream” when crafting the script – though the show is actually 90 per cent dialogue-free, with Miller and Doberstein instead directing actors to use a form of movement storytelling to spin their dark, trippy tale.
“Just know that there is magic, there is a lot of darkness, there’s themes of death, and some mystical fairy creatures,” muses Doberstein.
But perhaps what’s most intriguing about Deep Into Darkness isn’t so much the tale itself but how that tale is told.
In the fall of 2017, Miller and Doberstein – along with the third member of Third Wheel Productions, Doberstein’s husband, Fraser Larock – travelled to New York City and saw Sleep No More, an experimental production based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth which featured an actual block of warehouses in Manhattan converted into a 1930s-era hotel for the show’s setting.
Known as immersive or environmental theatre, Miller and Doberstein were so swept up in this style of production they endeavoured to use similar techniques for their own show. Far removed from traditional theatre where audiences sit in seats and gaze up as the drama unfolds in front of them, spectators at Deep Into Darkness are invited to roam and follow characters throughout the Cultch theatre, which will be been converted into a three-floor, 20-room 19th-century Victorian manor inspired by Poe’s literary creations.
“You use all your senses in immersive theatre,” notes Doberstein. “You’re very intimate, you’re up close and personal with the other audience members and the actors.”
Miller adds that immersive theatre creates another layer of drama into the mix beyond the usual dogma of actor and character. “The set design becomes a character, the sound design becomes a character,” she says. “As an audience member you’ll show up and you’ll be given a mask – you’ll be wearing a mask for the entirety of the show – and you’ll be able to walk around the entire building at your own freewill. … You may get a totally different story depending on where you’re standing in a room watching an actor compared to your friend who may be on the opposite side.”
Before Miller and Doberstein were partners in Poe together, they were classmates at CapU’s acting for stage and screen program from 2010 to 2013.
When the duo were cast as sisters in one production and compelled to each master an Irish accent (“We both weren’t the best at it,” notes Doberstein), they knew they would remain good friends.
After first setting out on their own acting journeys following the conclusion of that program, they eventually banded together and created a comedy web series called The Support Group about three zany, unlikely friends.
As Miller and Doberstein’s creative partnership continues, the duo is excited to challenge audiences with their new piece of immersive theatre. Asked what the best way to experience Deep Into Darkness is, Miller answers that audiences should endeavour to put the work in.
“Be curious, look through books, look through drawers, figure things out, find mysteries, solve puzzles – we have tons of puzzles – and you will be rewarded for your curiosity.”